The new variant, identified as a "variant of concern" by the WHO, is being blamed for increasing cases in South Africa and has sparked concern due to its high number of mutations.
President Joe Biden announced Friday that the United States would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries beginning Monday to the emerging and newly named "omicron" variant of the coronavirus.
Senior administration officials stated that the policy was "implemented with extreme caution" and on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi are also included in the restriction, which does not apply to US citizens or lawful permanent residents.
"As we move forward," Biden said in a statement, "we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises."
Later, Biden described the restrictions as preventative when speaking to reporters in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he and his family are spending the Thanksgiving holiday.
"We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a great concern, and seems to spread rapidly,” the president said.
Omicron, classified as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, is being blamed for an increase in cases in South Africa and has sparked concern due to its high number of mutations, making it potentially more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.
Biden emphasized the importance of vaccines and booster shots, urging fully vaccinated Americans to get booster shots as soon as they are eligible and making an urgent appeal to the unvaccinated.
"America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now — but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection," he said in Friday's statement. "If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time."
On Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed its worst day of the year as news of the variant — first detected in South Africa, with cases also identified in Asia and Europe — prompted fears of a prolonged pandemic.
The World Health Organization convened an emergency meeting on Friday, and the United Kingdom, the European Union, and other countries had already announced restrictions on travel from the African continent.
“We don't know very much about this yet,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said in a Thursday video. “What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. The concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
Biden addressed the "world community" in part of his Friday statement, claiming that the pandemic will not be over "until we have global vaccinations."
"The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined," Biden added. "It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity."