Jérôme Delay / AP
When the omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified in South Africa, scientists in the country were quick to inform global health officials of the new mutations they had discovered.
Although scientists have little information on the new variant and don’t know where it came from, several countries including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Israel and the European Union. announced almost immediate travel bans from South Africa and other countries in southern Africa. Restrictive measures triggered outcry from some health officials and experts who warn bans are premature and could create danger previous.
“These kinds of bans are of little use,” 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 likely 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, travel bans have only been imposed in countries in southern Africa.
One of the identified cases of the omicron variant in Belgium has had no contact or travel with any southern African nation, suggesting community spread may already be taking place.
“If the issue is to prevent the variant from entering, it really doesn’t make sense to exempt countries where it has been identified and which has even more direct flights than southern Africa,” Omer said.
Studies show travel bans are ineffective in curbing the spread of disease
A recent study of the magazine Science shows that restricting international travel at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic had some effect on delaying the spread, but researchers said restricting travel is only truly effective when combined with reducing the spread of infection through hand washing, isolation and early detection.
Another to study, in the Emergency management log, concluded that there is little evidence to prove that international travel bans are effective in controlling the spread of infectious diseases, and such measures should only be taken if recommended by the World Health Organization. With the omicron variant, the WHO has already warned against impose travel bans.
The introduction of a travel ban can also give a false impression that the virus is contained, the researchers said, adding that such policies can also make it difficult to transport health 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 principal author of the Emergency management log to study.
Travel bans could lead to less scientific transparency
Omer, of the Yale Institute of Global Health, has another concern about the implementation of travel bans during a public health crisis: It may hamper commitment to scientific transparency.
When countries that are proactive in disclosing the circulation of a virus are hit with travel restrictions, he said, it undermines the reasons why health officials need to be open about what is going on. in their country.
“You don’t want a situation where in a month a health minister from a country… gets a sequenced virus result and they say, ‘OK, if it’s that widespread, it’s going to come out of it all. way from another country, why be the first? And that cycle begins, ”Omer said.
Addressing vaccine inequalities around the world is the best way to prevent the emergence of these new variants, Omer said.
“If there are more transmission events every hour, every day, every week, the likelihood of a variant emergence 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 theirs vaccines.
It is too early to say whether the omicron variant in particular will become a serious public health threat, Omer added, “but that doesn’t mean we aren’t playing with fire by letting vaccine inequalities continue.”