Experts with the World Health Organization met Friday to assess the variant, which appears to have a high number of mutations in the virus’ spike protein, prompting worries about how easily it will spread. While good data on the risks of omicron is likely weeks away, the organization cited early evidence suggesting an increased risk of reinfection.
The U.S. said it will restrict travel from South Africa, as well as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, according to a statement from senior officials from the Biden administration.
The policy will take effect Monday, and President Joe Biden said the new rules mean “no travel” to or from the designated countries, except for returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents who test negative.
Infection rates in South Africa have "increased steeply," coinciding with the detection of the variant, according to a Friday statement from the WHO. The first omicron case was reported to the agency from South Africa on Nov. 24, and the number of cases of the variant are increasing in almost all South African provinces, the WHO said.
While omicron is now in the same category as the delta variant, the extent of the public health threat the new variant will pose is unclear. The beta variant was classified a variant of concern but did not spread as far as initially expected.
The WHO urged countries to increase surveillance of omicron cases and genome sequencing efforts to better understand its potential impact.
Biden said the emergence of omicron emphasizes the importance of vaccinations and urged Americans to get their booster shots as soon as possible.
The new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, according to Joe Phaahla, the nation's health minister. Phaahla said the variant has seen rapid spread in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.