A new variant of the coronavirus found in South Africa is driving a new round of travel restrictions, just as many have finally begun to ease.
The risks of a variant called the omicron are largely unknown. But the World Health Organization has called it an “option for concern,” and governments around the world are not waiting for scientists to better understand the option of imposing a flight ban and other travel restrictions.
On Friday, European Union countries agreed to impose a travel ban from southern Africa to counter its spread. The 27-country bloc reacted within hours at the advice of the EU executive, which said all countries should be extra careful about an option until it becomes clear how serious a threat that option poses.
The UK has also banned flights from South Africa and five other South African countries and announced that anyone who recently flew in from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
The moves have rekindled a debate about whether flight bans and other travel restrictions work to prevent the proliferation of new options. At best, some say the restrictions could buy time for new public health measures. At worst, they do little to stop the spread and give a false sense of security.
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said they strongly discourage travel bans for people arriving from countries where this option has been reported.
Do travel restrictions limit the spread of the virus?
They may buy countries more time to speed up vaccinations and introduce other measures such as camouflage and social distancing, but they are unlikely to prevent new options from emerging, said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh.
“Travel restrictions can delay but not prevent the spread of a highly contagious variant,” he said.
Dr. Amesh Adalya, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, says travel restrictions only create a false sense of security among the population and should stop being a “harsh” reaction from government officials. Adalya noted that imposing restrictions makes politicians “look like they’re doing something,” but that doesn’t make sense when countries now have countermeasures such as rapid tests and vaccines.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told a local news agency that he does not believe the travel ban will have any major impact other than countries with direct flights to the affected areas.
“Tracking all travel flows is nearly impossible,” Tegnell told Expressen.
Could it have been different this time?
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes that early detection of a new variant could mean that current restrictions will have a greater impact than when the delta variant first appeared.
“There is such good observation in South Africa and other nearby countries that they found this (new version), realized that it was a problem, and very quickly informed the world about it,” he said. “We may be at an earlier stage with this new option, so there may still be time to do something about it.”
However, Barrett said tough restrictions would be counterproductive and that South African officials should not be punished for warning the world about a new option. “They have done the world a favor, and we need to help them, not punish them for it.”
What does science say?
Sharon Peacock, who directed UK genetic sequencing at the University of Cambridge, said any travel restriction decisions were political, not scientific. She stressed that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the new option, including whether it is actually more contagious or deadly. While some of the mutations found are worrying, she said there is still no evidence that the new variant is more deadly or infectious than previous versions.
“You can prevent infection, but you need very, very strict restrictions, and only a few countries will want to do that,” she said.
“Buying time is important and worth it, but that decision is made by politicians,” she said. “At this point, we won’t have definitive scientific answers for several weeks.”
What about the economic impact?
If there is one thing the global economy does not need, it is uncertainty.
The new high-transmission coronavirus poses an economic as well as a health risk, threatening to disrupt global recovery and exacerbate supply chain bottlenecks that are already driving price increases. Markets around the world have plummeted due to concerns about this option and the reaction of political leaders.
“Our biggest concern at this point is how little we know about him,” said Craig Earlam, senior market analyst for foreign exchange trading firm OANDA.
AP authors Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, Paul Wiseman in Washington, and Ian M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.