Opinion | Revoke the Omicron Travel Ban Against African Countries

Not long after scientists in South Africa discovered the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, a number of Western countries – including the US – imposed travel bans on travelers from South African countries. The US ban excludes US citizens and permanent residents.

Notably, Omicron has been recognized in many other countries around the world, including the United States. Some data suggests that it may have circulated in Europe even before it was identified in South Africa. However, the ban remains in place.

President Biden has acknowledged that a US travel ban is unlikely to stop the virus. But he justified it as a way to delay the arrival of a new alternative in the country. Aharon It justified the ban as a way to act “proactively” – as if there were no undesirable consequences for the policy.

Has the ban delayed the arrival and spread of the new alternative in the United States? How does it affect efforts to control Covid-19 in the United States?

The science is accurate. Even before the pandemic, scientists had studied the benefit of a travel ban following the emergence of a new respiratory virus. Most research related to the pre-Covid-19 pandemic has been conducted on potential influenza pandemics. The seasonal and pandemic influenza virus can be devastating, but is less contagious than SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

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To assess virus infection, epidemiologists use a unit of measurement they call the basic reproduction number, or R0. It is derived from the average number of individuals who are statistically likely to be infected by an infected person in an uninfected and unimmunized population. The virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic had an R0 of 1.8, and the R0 of seasonal influenza ranged from 0.9 to 2.1, while the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 had an R0 of 2 to 3; The delta variant has an estimated R0 of 6. While we don’t yet know the R0 for Omicron, it is likely much higher than for influenza.

A 2014 review of the scientific evidence by a group of British researchers from Public Health England and the University of Nottingham concluded that travel bans can work but only to stop a pandemic influenza virus from reaching a country. The study found that to effectively delay importing the virus, a ban would have to shut down nearly all travel to a country. But according to the researchers, even these strict restrictions may have limited benefit if the virus in question is moderately to highly contagious — as is the case with SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.

During the current pandemic, it is true that countries such as New Zealand and Australia have used travel bans to reduce the import of SARS-CoV-2. But their ban was almost complete, early enough, and coupled with effective contact tracing and quarantine systems. Likewise, many small island nations such as the Polynesian nation of Tuvalu – which has a population of about 12,000 – have kept the coronavirus at bay after severely restricting travel.

So, yes: Travel bans can work under limited circumstances. But the Omicron-related South African travel ban imposed by the United States is highly selective, focusing on many countries where the variant has not been documented and ruling out many where the variant has been detected.

If there are any doubts about the futility of this ban, reports of Omicron cases outside South Africa should stop it. In fact, there are far more countries reporting omicron cases outside Southern Africa than in that region.

And the travel ban is not without a cost. It can discourage countries from reporting new variants and emerging viruses.

Let’s say you’re a health minister somewhere in Africa and you see some preliminary data that a new alternative is being circulated in your country. Announcing the discovery could risk imposing volatile travel restrictions on your people. Do you tell the world?

The success of domestic efforts in the United States depends on what is happening globally. A new species or incomplete information about the existing ones can undermine efforts to control the virus. It is in America’s interest that scientists, doctors, and health officials everywhere do not feel conflicted about reporting relevant information quickly and completely.

Instead of imposing arbitrary travel restrictions, countries could adopt less intrusive policies to slow the spread of the virus through international travel, including testing passengers before they leave or after they arrive. Making proof of vaccination mandatory for international travel also helps reduce importation of the virus.

The US has, of course, already imposed new rules for all incoming travelers – citizens and permanent residents as well as foreign visitors – that require a negative result for a test taken within the day of departure and proof of immunization. These rules further reduce the need for blanket travel bans for a few countries.

However, the long-term solution is to ensure that a large number of people around the world are vaccinated.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised to have a scientific response to the pandemic. But his travel ban to southern African countries cannot be justified by science. Moreover, it makes Americans and others less safe by discouraging rapid reporting of new variants. It is time, then, for the United States to repeal the embargo.

Saad b. Omar is Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and Professor of Internal Medicine and Epidemiology at Yale University School of Medicine and Yale School of Public Health.

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