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Africa

A COVID-19 testing facility in Boston's Logan Airport

By Peter Szekely and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials have not imposed any new screening or tracing requirements in response to the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant that prompted the Biden administration to restrict travel from southern Africa.

Starting Monday, the United States will bar most foreign travelers from South Africa and seven other southern African countries in an attempt to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa on Friday.

However, the travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents. Until the ban starts at 12:01 ET Monday, flights from South Africa have continued to carry foreign nationals.

Airline passengers entering the United States from abroad are already subject to stringent CDC COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements, but are not generally monitored by health officials after they leave flights and are not required to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival in the United States.

Nearly all foreign nationals entering the U.S. need to be vaccinated to enter but Americans do not need to be vaccinated to return home.

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, the two airlines that fly direct to Johannesburg said on Friday they do not plan any changes to their South Africa-U.S. flights after the variant was discovered.

Fully vaccinated travelers must provide proof of negative COVID-19 tests taken within three days of their departure but those not fully vaccinated must have had a negative test result within one day.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on how its requirements are enforced, or if it will issue additional requirements since the emergence of the Omicron variant prompted the U.S. travel restrictions.

No cases of the Omicron variant were identified in the United States as of Friday, the CDC has said. But infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said this weekend it was likely already in the United States.

The CDC said Friday it expects to identify the B.1.1.529 variant quickly if it emerges in the United States.

United currently operates five flights per week between Newark and Johannesburg. Delta operates three from Johannesburg to Atlanta.

Two flights from South Africa that landed in the Netherlands Friday had 13 passengers with the Omicron variant on board, Dutch authorities said Sunday, and cases are being discovered in countries around the world.

The Netherlands Omicron cases were among 61 who tested positive for COVID-19 out of about 600 passengers on the two flights.

A spokesperson for KLM, the Dutch arm of Air France, said the passengers on the flight had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before getting on planes in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose, Peter Szekely, David Shepardson; Editing by Heather Timmons and Diane Craft)

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Travellers line up for Covid tests at Johannesburg Airport on November 27, 2021

Washington (AFP) - The United States praised South Africa Saturday for quickly identifying the new Covid strain called Omicron and sharing this information with the world -- a barely veiled slap at China's handling of the original outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with South Africa's international relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, and they discussed cooperation on vaccinating people in Africa against COVID-19, the State Department said.

"Secretary Blinken specifically praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world," the statement said.

First under Donald Trump and now under President Joe Biden, the United States has repeatedly criticized China as not being forthcoming on the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading around the world. It has now killed nearly 5.2 million people.

In August of this year the US intelligence community released a report in which it said it could not reach a firm conclusion on the origins of the virus -- among animals or in a research lab were top scenarios -- because China had not helped in the US probe.

The U.S. has also accused Beijing of waiting too long before sharing crucial information about the outbreak, saying that a more transparent handling could have helped halt the spread of the virus.

After the U.S. report was issued this summer, Biden accused Beijing of stonewalling.

"The world deserves answers, and I will not rest until we get them," Biden said in a statement after that unclassified report came out.

"Responsible nations do not shirk these kinds of responsibilities to the rest of the world."

The pandemic is one of many sources of acute tension today in US-China relations, as the two great powers clash over trade, human rights, and the prickly issue of Taiwan, among other matters.