Dr. Anthony Fauci defended the Biden administration’s restrictions on travel to the US from eight nations in southern Africa Wednesday after confirming the emergence of the first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the US.
The White House chief medical adviser was pressed by Simon Ateba of Today News Africa about the justification for the restrictions on travel from six of the eight nations who have not reported any Omicron cases.
“You know that’s a very good question and important question, and we did struggle with that,” Fauci said. “But we wanted to see if we could buy time temporarily, so I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact on your country.”
The eight countries covered by the ban are Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Of those, only South Africa and Botswana have confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
African leaders and global health officials have slammed the restrictions, with Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera calling it a case of “Afrophobia.”
“We are all concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did,” he said in a Facebook post Sunday. “But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC [Southern African Development Community] countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”
The criticism mirrors statements by then-candidate Biden after former President Donald Trump restricted travel to and from China and Europe in the early days of the pandemic.
“A wall will not stop the coronavirus. Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it. This disease could impact every nation and any person on the planet — and we need a plan to combat it,” the former vice president tweeted in March.
Biden ultimately kept the restrictions in place until November — long after Trump wanted to end them.
Fauci was also asked during the briefing about New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recent order postponing elective surgeries in hospitals where capacity is limited ahead of an expected COVID surge during the winter months.
“I really don’t want to comment on situations in individual states because there are so many factors from state to state that are different,” he responded. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment whether a state should or should not postpone elective surgeries.”
The statement represented a change of tune for Fauci, who previously opined on the actions of officials in several states during the height of the pandemic. In March, for example, the White House health authority criticized Texas and Mississippi for lifting mask mandates, calling it “inexplicable.”
In addition to the travel restrictions, the administration is also moving to implement new testing requirements for those heading to the US.
The move, which has not been formally announced, would require all air travelers — US citizens and foreign nationals alike — to provide a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of departure.
“As you advise the President about the possibility of new testing requirements for people coming into this country. Does that include everybody?” Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy asked Fauci.
“The answer is yes,” Fauci said. “Because you know that the new — the new regulation, if you want to call it that, is that anybody and everybody who’s coming into the country needs to get a test within 24 hours of getting on the plane to come here.”
“What about people who don’t take a plane — just these border crossers coming in in huge numbers?” Doocy pushed.
“That’s a different issue,” responded Fauci, deflecting the question.