Jerome Delay / AP
When the omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified in South Africa, the country’s scientists were quick to inform global health leaders about the new mutations they had found.
Although scientists have little information about the new variant and are not sure where it comes from, there are several countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel and the European Union. announced almost immediate travel bans from South Africa and other South African nations. The restrictive measures triggered outcry from some health authorities and experts who warn that the bans are premature and could put a harmful precedent.
“There is very little benefit from that kind of ban,” Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health, told NPR.
“Unfortunately, from what we know about the epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of this variant, the horse has probably left the stable,” Omer said, noting the high transmissibility of this coronavirus and its variants.
And although the omicron variant has been reported in several other countries in Europe, Asia and North America, only travel bans have been introduced against South African countries.
One of the identified cases of the omicron variant in Belgium had no contact or travel with any nations in southern Africa, suggesting that societal dispersal could already take place.
“If the issue is to prevent the variant from entering, it really does not make sense to exclude countries where it has been identified and which have even more direct flights than southern Africa,” Omer said.
Studies show that travel bans are ineffective in slowing the spread of disease
ONE recent study from the journal Science shows that restricting international travel at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic had some effect on delaying the spread, but the researchers said that restricting travel is only really effective when paired with slowing the spread of infection through hand washing, isolation and early detection.
Another examination, i Journal of Emergency Management, concluded that there is little evidence that international travel bans are effective in controlling the spread of communicable diseases and that such measures should only be taken if recommended by the World Health Organization. With the omicron variant, the WHO has already warned against introduction of travel bans.
Imposing a travel ban could also give a false sense that the virus is contained, researchers said, adding that such policies could also make it difficult to transport health care workers and other resources.
In addition, the stigma of travel bans can exacerbate racism and xenophobia, according to Nicole Errett from the University of Washington, who was the lead author on Journal of Emergency Management examination.
Travel bans can lead to less scientific transparency
Omer, of the Yale Institute of Global Health, has another concern about implementing travel bans during a public health crisis: It could dampen the commitment to scientific transparency.
When countries that are proactive in revealing the circulation of a virus are hit by travel restrictions, he said, it underpins the case for health officials to be forthcoming about what is happening in their countries.
“You do not want a situation where a national health minister in a month … gets a result of sequenced virus and they say: ‘OK, if it’s so prevalent, it will still come from another country, why be the first ? ‘ And that cycle starts, “Omer said.
Tackling vaccine inequality around the world is the best way to stop these new variants from popping up, Omer said.
“If there are more transmission events going on every hour, with every day, with every week, the likelihood of a variant popping up increases,” he said.
And one of the most effective ways to tackle inequality, Omer said, is to enable all regions, especially low-income countries, to produce their own vaccines.
It is too early to say whether the omicron variant in particular will pose a serious threat to public health, Omer added, “but that does not mean we are not playing with fire by letting vaccine inequality continue.”
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