The White House continued to defend ongoing travel restrictions imposed on eight African countries due to concerns over the Omicron variant, which has now been detected across the globe and in the US.
White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients acknowledged “difficulty” imposed by the restrictions, particularly during the holiday travel season, calling it a “reasonable measure” that was being evaluated daily.
“I want to emphasize we understand that this limitation is causing difficulty for those in southern Africa. But we think the temporary limitation on a limited number of countries until we have answers we need is a reasonable measure for a reasonable period of time and we are continuously day to day reevaluating policy,” he said during Tuesday’s White House Covid-19 response team briefing.
The restrictions, which went into effect last week, have been described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “travel apartheid.”
The restrictions, Zients said in response to a question from CNN, “were taken out of an abundance of caution to help slow the spread and give us the time to prepare and… evaluate the Omicron variant.”
“We are continuing to see, as Dr. Fauci presented, thousands of cases every day in southern Africa,” Zients added. “There are lots of unknowns about the transmissibility, the severity, the vaccine impact of Omicron, and we will learn more about the variant as Dr. Fauci just described, as [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director] Dr. Walensky described, over the coming days and weeks.”
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said it would be “at least another couple of weeks before we have a good handle” on the severity of disease from the Omicron variant, with most of the data coming from South Africa due to the volume of cases there. He added that scientists will have “a really good handle a few weeks thereafter.”
“I would say we shouldn’t be making any definitive conclusions, certainly not before the next couple of weeks,” Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said of Omicron severity.