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After the World Health Organization considered a new strain of coronavirus, first identified by South African officials, a variant of concern on Friday morning, world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, reacted quickly with travel restrictions aimed at South African countries.
Health officials say travel restrictions give countries time to understand and combat new variants, but many health experts criticized the measure, saying it will not stop the spread of the virus and penalize countries that report new variants.
“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters about the omicron variant. “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious,” he said of the travel restrictions.
Although the variant has not yet been reported in the US, it was found in Britain and some European countries on Saturday morning. Experts point out that the variant needs further study to determine how dangerous it is.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that travel bans are unlikely to keep the virus out of the U.S.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility… it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” he told NBC News. Still, he added that travel restrictions may be helpful in giving the U.S. more time to respond to the situation.
But travel bans, even when promulgated early, can only do so much, said Stacia Wyman, a senior scientist at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Innovative Genomics, often when a new variant is discovered, already has spread.
“Vaccination, masking and lots of testing — those are the three things that really should be emphasized in the face of this variant,” he said. “To close the border and perhaps antagonize governments and stigmatize countries is just not the way to address it.”
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert like UCSF, said that in her opinion, travel restrictions are usually more political than anything else.
“A respiratory virus is a respiratory virus,” Gandhi said. “You cannot close borders and keep something out.”
Experts also fear that travel bans could discourage countries from seeking and reporting new variants.
“Kneejerk travel bans against people from countries reporting new viral variants disincentivizes other nations from reporting variants,” Dr. Seema Yasmin, an epidemiologist and Stanford professor, wrote on Twitter. “They don’t want the backlash and economic consequences.”
Dr. Abraar Karan, a Stanford infectious disease expert, also questioned the fact that U.S. government travel restrictions “won’t apply to American citizens who are returning.”
“Closing borders & boosting with third doses is not how we end the pandemic. It’s how we remind people around the world that solidarity in this crisis has been a sham,” Dr. Abraar Karan, an expert on Twitter, wrote on Twitter. Stanford infectious diseases. “We need to do better than that.”
The African Centers for Disease Control also criticized travel restrictions, saying in a statement that “over the duration of this pandemic, we have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome. “. The agency said, instead, the implementation of social and public health measures “should be prioritized.”
Yasmin also questioned how far the travel restrictions will go as the variant appears in countries outside Africa.
“Now that it’s been confirmed that the new variant first reported in South Africa has already infected people in the U.K., there’ll be travel bans for U.K. visitors, right?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Danielle Echeverria is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @DanielleEchev