Fauci hopes for end to US travel ban on southern Africa as Omicron continues to spread

Fifteen US states have now reported cases of the new variant

A Thai health official collects swab samples for Covid-19 testing at a school in Bangkok. EPA
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Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron

Top US infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said he hopes the travel ban on southern African countries can be lifted in a "reasonable period of time" as information is gathered on the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Dr Fauci told CNN on Sunday that US health authorities were mindful of the hardship the travel ban was causing in those countries and were constantly re-evaluating the policy.

Covid-19 cases involving the new Omicron strain have been increasing in the US, with New York City recording three more cases and Massachusetts reporting its first infection.

The cases in New York, which bring the state’s total to eight, do not appear to be connected to a large anime conference in Manhattan, where a Minnesota resident appears to have been infected, Governor Kathy Hochul said on Saturday.

Massachusetts reported a case involving a fully vaccinated woman in her 20s who had travelled out of state, the Department of Public Health said. She “has experienced mild disease" but did not need to be admitted to hospital, the department said.

Georgia said it was tracing people who had been in contact with a resident who returned from South Africa, spent two days in Georgia before going to New Jersey, where she tested positive.

The Omicron variant had been found in about 15 US states as of Saturday night but the Delta variant remains responsible for the vast majority of Covid-19 cases across the country, Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told ABC News on Sunday.

"We know we have several dozen cases and we're following them closely. And we are every day hearing about more and more probable cases so that number is likely to rise," Dr Walensky said.

Of the 90,000 to 100,000 cases being reported each day in the US, 99.9 per cent of are the Delta variant, she said.

Omicron spreads in Sydney

Meanwhile, five people in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, have contracted the Omicron variant locally, health authorities in the New South Wales state confirmed.

The cases are linked to two schools and a climbing gym in Sydney’s western suburbs, which may also be the source of a confirmed Omicron infection in the Australian Capital Territory, the state's chief health officer Kerry Chant said on Sunday.

Urgent genome testing is under way for a number of other cases linked to the venues and should be available in coming days.

New South Wales has confirmed 15 Omicron infections and more are expected, Ms Chant said. The outbreak was traced to infected travellers on a flight from Doha who had visited southern Africa.

Australia will begin vaccinating young children starting early next year once authorities receive final approvals in the coming weeks.

Countries review travel rules

More and more countries have begun reviewing travel requirements as the new strain begins to take hold. UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News that the country would require all travellers to take a Covid-19 test within 48 hours before their flight – regardless of their vaccination status.

The measure will be temporary and be reviewed as the Omicron outbreak develops, he said. More than 100 people in the UK have been identified with the new variant, which is rapidly spreading around the world.

The new rules go into effect on December 7.

The French government also announced details of tougher testing requirements for visitors from outside the EU. From Saturday, anyone arriving from a non-European country, whether or not they are vaccinated, must show a negative antigen test taken within 24 hours or a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours.

Unvaccinated EU visitors need a negative antigen or PCR test report obtained within 24 hours to enter France.

While not announcing new travel restrictions, the Mayor of the Brazilian city Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, said he was cancelling New Year's Eve celebrations after the country reported its first Omicron cases.

Countries such as Chile and Romania have also announced their first cases of the new variant. Both countries linked the new cases to travellers who had recently been to Africa.

Chile’s first case was a foreign resident who had travelled recently from Ghana, the Valparaiso regional secretariat of the health ministry said on Twitter. The patient had received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Cases of the Omicron variant linked to a Christmas party in the Norwegian capital may rise to as many as 100, public broadcaster NRK reported.

Everyone who attended the event held in Oslo by renewable power producer Scatec ASA on November 26 is being treated as if they have the virus, the broadcaster reported, citing Line Vold, a department director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Updated: December 05, 2021, 4:43 PM