(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised South Africa for the way it handled the emergence of the omicron variant while also defending U.S. travel restrictions, saying the move was a necessary step to protect public health. 

“I really want to applaud and express gratitude to South Africa and its government for its extraordinary transparency and also very important work again in detecting this new variant and making it known to the world,” Blinken said at a news conference in Riga, Latvia, after meeting the country’s foreign minister. “That’s exactly a model of responsibility that South Africans exhibited.”

Blinken’s remarks were clearly aimed at soothing anger from some South African officials -- including Health Minister Joe Phaahla -- who have contended that limits on travel from South Africa and seven nearby countries were unjustified and ran against standards advised by the World Health Organization. Some critics have argued that the economic devastation caused by such bans will discourage nations like South Africa from being transparent in the future.

At the same time, Blinken made clear that the travel limits, which went into effect Monday, will remain for now.

“This is based on one metric and one metric alone, and that’s public health -- making sure we do everything possible to protect public health as we get answers” about the new variant, Blinken said. He said the emergence of the new variant only underscored the need to deliver more vaccines across Africa, where vaccinations trail far behind rates in the U.S. and Europe.

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