Jen Psaki said South Africa turned down an offer by the US to provide it with additional COVID-19 vaccines.
About a quarter of people in South Africa are fully vaccinated as the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, spreads.
Psaki said the US government is "prepared to provide" South Africa with additional vaccine doses.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday that South Africa turned down an offer by the US to provide the country with additional COVID-19 vaccines and that the country "has not requested additional vaccines" following the almost 8 million doses the US delivered.
Unlike many other African countries, South Africa isn't suffering from a shortage of vaccines and has one of the highest vaccination rates on the continent. Still, less than 25% of the country's population is fully vaccinated. Experts say South Africa's slow pace of vaccination is a result of inadequate infrastructure to distribute the shots, as well as vaccine hesitancy. And the country can't administer the vaccines it has quickly enough. Earlier this month, South Africa asked two major vaccine manufacturers, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, to postpone new vaccine deliveries because uptake has slowed in the country due to widespread vaccine hesistancy.
"It's not just about having vaccine doses, it's about insuring there's operational capacity," Psaki said of South Africa. "Also, there are hesistancy issues in not just the United States, but in many parts of the world. So, it's about having not just the vaccine doses, but also the apparatus, the capability, and also addressing vaccine hesistancy."
Psaki added that the US government is "prepared to provide" the South Africans with more vaccines when they're ready to receive them.
On Thursday, South Africa's health minister announced the discovery of the new, heavily mutated coronavirus variant, called Omicron. On Monday, Biden called the new variant "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," and announced the government is coordinating with vaccine producers to alter the shots to address the new variant if required.
Countries around the world responded quickly to the news, with some imposing travel bans on southern African countries. On Friday, Biden announced that the US will indefinitely restrict travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries - Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, and Lesotho - beginning on Monday. But the restrictions don't apply to US citizens, US permanent residents, and their non-citizen spouses.
The US's new travel restrictions came after the European Union and the United Kingdom similarly barred travel from several southern African countries. Japan will close its borders to all foreigners beginning on Tuesday.
South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said on Monday that he was "deeply disappointed" by the new travel restrictions, arguing that they will hurt his country economically and undermine its effort to fight the coronavirus.
"The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic," he said. Malawi's president, Lazarus Chakwera, condemned the travel bans as "Afrophobia" on Monday.
Some experts are calling on the US and other countries to increase financial aid to countries they restrict travel from to compensate for the economic hit and avoid disincentivizing governments from quickly reporting pandemic-related discoveries.
Psaki insisted that the travel bans are not designed to punish countries with potentially dangerous outbreaks, but to buy the US time to learn more about the variant and better protect its population.
"The objective here is not to punish, it is to protect the American people," she said. "As you just heard the president say, this is not going to prevent, it is going to delay. And that delay is going to help us have necessary time to do the research by our health and medical teams, to get more people vaccinated, and to get more people boosted."