The discovery of a new coronavirus variant in southern Africa this week led governments around the world Friday to impose travel restrictions and quarantine regulations while health officials were still evaluating the severity of the threat. The emergence of the variant, classified as “omicron” by the World Health Organization, is causing confusion for some travelers — and stranding others — as countries scramble to respond to the news.
Starting Monday, the United States will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The policy will not affect U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Here’s what travelers should know about the unfolding situation.
What countries are ordering bans
Shortly before the United States announced it would restrict travel from eight southern African nations, European Union members voted to order a travel ban on seven countries from the region. Canada announced a similar ban, effective Friday, for foreign nationals who had traveled through seven southern African countries in the past 14 days.
Britain, France, Israel, and Japan had already called for restrictions or quarantines following a Thursday announcement from South African health officials that they had linked a new variant to a cluster of cases in its Gauteng province.
The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association condemned the U.K. action to temporarily ban travelers from its region, calling the move a “knee-jerk decision” that punishes South Africa for finding the variant.
What travel experts recommend
As of Friday evening, the travel advisory for South Africa from the Centers for Disease Control was at Level 1, representing a “low level” of COVID-19 risk in the country. Around 24 percent of the population in South Africa is fully vaccinated. Travelers flying into the country are required to present a negative result from a PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure.
SmartFlyer travel adviser Robert Merlin said Friday he’s telling clients who have booked trips to Africa to sit tight and wait for more information to emerge before making any changes.
Merlin recommends that travelers have a backup plan, suggesting trip stacking as a potential strategy. He said travelers should follow the news closely for updates on the omicron variant and resulting restrictions — not just for Africa but for parts of the world experiencing coronavirus surges, like Europe.
“It’s a very fluid situation,” he said. “If you’re willing to go, you just need to be flexible and understand that things can change.”
Travel adviser Amanda Poses, who owns the SmartFlyer affiliate Poses Travel & Co., has a family vacation to South Africa and Botswana departing Dec. 17. She’s waiting for more facts before deciding whether to cancel or postpone the trip.
“I am hopeful but feel like we will know more by the end of the week,” Poses said over text message. Poses hopes to be in a better position to advise clients soon, but she acknowledges bookings are harder to change during the holidays.
“It is tricky for those traveling for the upcoming festive season as they are in the nonrefundable period,” she said. “In addition, as far as I know most travel insurances do not cover you if borders are closed.”
What health experts are watching
The WHO said in a statement Friday that it labeled omicron as a “variant of concern,” a classification designated to only four other variants. It also reminded the public to take proven public health measures, like getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, maintaining good hand hygiene, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and improving the ventilation of indoor spaces.
Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Washington Post on Friday that he did not plan to cancel an upcoming work trip to South Africa, where he is an honorary professor at the University of Cape Town. Whether he changes his mind will depend on what new research on omicron shows. One clear benchmark will be if scientists find the new variant has immune escape capability, which would mean our current vaccines are not totally effective against it.
Beyrer says it’s a challenging situation for countries to be facing, but he noted that travel bans may not be the solution.
“Our attempts, for example, with delta to try and use travel restrictions and limitations did not work,” he said. “And that is because that was just such an infectious virus and it spread around the world with remarkable speed.”
Cases of the new variant have been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel, in addition to South Africa.
Beyrer cautions that essential travel abroad should be done only by those who are fully vaccinated and boosted. Anyone who lives with unvaccinated children or is at risk for severe COVID infection should also be more cautious about international travel.
Jonathan Baktari, a pulmonary and critical care expert and CEO of e7 Health, predicts that pharmaceutical companies will need to create an updated vaccine to better protect against omicron, likening that idea to how the flu vaccine is tweaked each year. Until then, he says, travelers are probably better off if they’re fully vaccinated and boosted.
“We’re going to have more of these variants,” Baktari said.