Texas medical experts, travelers respond to new COVID-19 ‘variant of concern’, Omicron

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The United States will restrict travel from Monday to South Africa and several surrounding countries. The move comes right after World Health Organization declared a new strain of COVID-19, named Omicron, to be a “variant of concern.”

The travel restrictions will not affect U.S. citizens with a negative COVID-19 test. In addition to South Africa, this applies to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Health experts are concerned that this new variant, called Omicron, may be highly transmissible, more resistant to vaccines and result in an increased risk of re-infection.

“There is no need to panic at this time,” said Baylor College of Medicine professor Dr. Thomas Giordano.

“What is it about this variant that is so alarming to many people?” asked KXAN investigation reporter Matt Grant.

“It has a lot more mutations than previous variants,” Giordano said. “And some of these variants are in the tip protein,” which helps the virus enter the cells.

Other countries, including the UK and Israel, have already implemented similar travel restrictions, citing concerns about the portability of the new variant. The European Union introduced a similar travel ban. However, Belgium has already announced a case of the Omicron variant in a traveler who returned from northern Africa two weeks ago.

It is unclear how long these new measures will last into the busy holiday travel period.

Countries affected by the US travel restrictions, which begin on November 29

Dr. Giordano says more research is needed into the variant. He is not sure that travel restrictions will work, but says he understands the need.

“Unless you completely isolate borders and shut things down in a way that very few people have the urge to do more,” he said, just before the ban was announced, “I do not think travel restrictions will make a big impact.”

The co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, Dr. Peter Hotez, a leading expert, says we should “assume that’s likely in the United States now.”

Still, he is not worried yet.

“The Delta variant is by far the most transferable we’ve ever seen,” Hotez told MSNBC on Friday. “It takes a lot to outcompete Delta. So I’m not panicking yet. ”

At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, travelers said they were cautious but not overly concerned.

Passengers said the new variant will not change their holiday travel plans.

“If it’s really bad and we’re worried about it over here, then they should have stopped (flights),” Charles Luton said before returning to Miami, in support of the restrictions.

“Everyone is pretty much over it,” said Austin Byrom, who travels with his wife, children and mother to Disney World. “But at the same time, it’s still there. It’s still something to worry about.”

“I think it’s always in the back of my mind,” said Byrom’s mother, Ellie Delagarza. “But we try to be as diligent as we can [and] still have a life. “

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