Biden revokes COVID-19 travel ban from southern African nations

President Joe Biden issued a proclamation on Tuesday overturning the travel ban he placed on African nations after the omicron variant started to spread.

The proclamation goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. ET on Dec. 31, 2021.

"The travel restrictions imposed by that proclamation are no longer necessary to protect the public health," Biden said in a statement

The ban, for non-citizens, restricted travel to the U.S. from the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, and the Republic of Zimbabwe.

"Since I issued that proclamation, our Nation’s health officials, in collaboration with the South African scientists who originally reported the variant, have made substantial progress in understanding the Omicron variant," Biden continued.

He said his proclamation came after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended lifting the ban.

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The omicron variant, which was first detected by scientists in South Africa, has since spread around the world. The World Health Organization and leaders in southern Africa criticized the travel ban as ineffective and unfairly damaging to local economies.

Omicron is now spreading rapidly throughout the U.S., including among the vaccinated, but a huge majority of those being hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Much about the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown; scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta. 

The government reports that 73% of new infections nationwide are from the omicron variant. But while breakthrough infections among vaccinated people have become common, they have rarely led to severe illness or hospitalization.

The rapid advance of omicron, along with more people gathering indoors during winter, has led to a major infection spike. The seven-day rolling average for U.S. COVID-19 cases climbed past 160,000 this week, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. That’s more than double the average in late November.

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The rapid spread of the new variant hasn’t overwhelmed most domestic hospital systems yet, but it has roiled businesses, sports leagues and Christmas travel plans across the country. Multiple NBA and NFL games have been rescheduled due to COVID outbreaks, and the Hawaii Bowl, scheduled for Friday, was cancelled outright after Hawaii was forced to withdraw.

Three major airlines have cancelled dozens of domestic and international flights, citing staffing shortages.

Vaccines in the U.S. and around the world do not offer as much protection against omicron as they have against previous versions of the coronavirus. However, vaccines still help — a lot. Lab tests show while two doses may not be strong enough to prevent infection, a booster shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine produces virus-fighting antibodies capable of tackling omicron.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.