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The United States on Monday imposed travel restrictions on eight countries in southern Africa in an effort to stem the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus first detected in the region.
In an address to the nation, President Biden conceded that the bans would not stop the new variant — which was first detected in the U.S. on Wednesday — from reaching the country but could slow its arrival so the country can be better prepared to deal with it. “Here's what it does: It gives us time,” Biden said. “It gives us time to take more actions. To move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get the vaccine.”
At this point, very little is known about the Omicron variant. Key questions about how transmissible it is, whether it causes more severe infections and if it can circumvent immunity from vaccines or previous infections remain largely unanswered. Moderna’s CEO said in a new interview that it’s likely vaccines are less effective. And the World Health Organization announced on Friday that it had enough evidence to designate Omicron as a “variant of concern.” In the days following that announcement, a growing list of countries around the world have put new travel restrictions in place.
Travel bans have been a major part of the international response to COVID-19. The United States imposed sweeping restrictions on entry by foreign nationals in the early weeks of the pandemic. Some of those bans stayed in place until earlier this month, when the Biden administration reopened the country to vaccinated international travelers.
Why there’s debate
The new travel restrictions put in place by the U.S. and other nations have reignited a debate about how effective they really are at slowing the spread of viruses and what harm the bans may cause.
Health experts agree that, outside of completely shutting borders, no country can expect to stop the Omicron variant from reaching its shores eventually. Defenders of the new bans say delaying that inevitability could be crucial, especially since so much is unknown at this early stage about how Omicron behaves. “The positive effect is to get up better prepared. To rev up on the vaccinations. … We want to be sure that we’re prepared for the worst,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday.
Some epidemiologists have made the case that the Biden administration’s current ban doesn’t go far enough, because it includes exemptions for American citizens and doesn’t require things like testing or quarantine upon arrival. Even the staunchest supporters of travel restrictions say they are only helpful if they’re part of a robust local mitigation strategy that includes masking, distancing, testing and — most important — vaccination.
Critics say the travel bans are essentially useless, since there’s significant reason to believe that the Omicron variant is already present in most parts of the globe. The key to stopping Omicron and other future variants, they argue, is vaccinating as many people as possible around the world — limiting the space the virus has to mutate. Others worry that punishing South Africa for sharing critical information about the evolution of the virus with the rest of the world could lead the next nation to identify a new variant to keep that news under wraps.
It’s unclear how long the new travel ban might stay in place or whether additional countries may be added to the list as more Omicron cases are detected around the world.
The bans can give the U.S. precious time to prepare for Omicron
“Most of the evidence suggests that travel bans, if put in early, can slow spread of the new variant into a country by a week or two. Not keep it out — but slow it.” — Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health
It’s a mistake to exempt American citizens from travel bans
“Containment needs to target the pathogen, not the passports. As a precaution, travel should be restricted for both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens from countries where the variant is known to be spreading more widely until we have more clarity.” — Zeynep Tufekci, New York Times
It’s a mistake to focus only on a handful of countries
“Targeted travel restrictions, such as those currently imposed on southern African countries, are effective only at preventing cases from places where the virus has been detected — not necessarily where it is now, and certainly not where it will be in the future.” — Karen Grépin, Washington Post
It’s important to limit the opportunities for superspreader events
“Pathogens generally follow travel patterns as they spread, but there’s also a lot of randomness about whether and when variants will take off in a given place. Some imported infections won’t go anywhere, but others will set off chains of transmissions; the more cases that are introduced, the higher the likelihood that some ignite spread.” — Andrew Joseph, Stat
Time and time again, the cautious approach has proved to be the best one
“The importance of the precautionary principle has been proved over and again in this pandemic. With a virus that spreads so rapidly, less restriction action sooner can prevent the need for more restrictive action for longer later.” — Editorial, Guardian
It’s too late for travel bans to make a difference
“The idea that we can use travel restrictions to stop or slow the spread of a variant assumes we know where in the world a variant is or isn’t. But that’s fantasy. We only know where a few cases are. No idea if these are most of them.” — Jennifer Nuzzo, epidemiologist
Countries should be rewarded, not punished, for sharing important information about the virus
“No country wants to be labelled as the harbinger of a new variant with countries banning travel to and from them. A flawed and potentially dangerous message is sent when honest communication and good science are punished with travel bans.” — Sheldon H. Jacobson and Janet Jokela, The Hill
Travel bans do serious harm to vulnerable countries while offering little benefit
“Travel bans will fail because the virus almost certainly escaped before the ban could be implemented. Travel bans cost billions of dollars to countries’ economies, disrupt supply chains and family relationships, and in the end have only minor effects on transmission.” — Shan Soe-Lin and Robert Hecht, Boston Globe
Travel bans are pointless if they’re not part of a comprehensive mitigation plan
“It can buy you a bit of time. So if countries are imposing a ban and using that time, which will be at the moment a few weeks, to increase the pace of vaccination rollouts to make sure that any new antiviral drugs are available within the country, to increase testing, genomic surveillance at airports, that sort of thing, that's something you can usefully do with a travel ban. If you just implement a travel ban and say ‘right, job done,’ then that's no good to anyone.” — Michael Head, global health researcher, to CNN
The only real, permanent solution is an aggressive global vaccination campaign
“I think much more productive than travel bans would be refocusing our energies on trying to vaccinate southern Africa because that's how these new variants emerge — they emerge out of large unvaccinated populations. … Forget about the travel bans, let's go vaccinate the African people.” — Peter Hotez, global health expert, to CNN
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