Why Travel Bans Won't Stop Omicron

Zimbabwe after travel ban was imposed

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Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. and others have imposed travel bans in an attempt to slow the spread of Omicron.
  • Some experts criticize these bans, saying they don’t buy much time and may disincentivize nations from sharing important epidemiological data for fear of facing repercussions.
  • Focusing on mitigating the virus spread on a more local level may be more effective at this point.

Nearly 40 countries have restricted international travel to curb the spread of Omicron, a highly mutated COVID-19 variant.  

Almost immediately after the World Health Organization (WHO) classified Omicron as a variant of concern, the United States banned travelers from South Africa and other countries in the region. Other have gone even further. Israel and Japan have barred all foreign visitors from entering their countries.

At least 24 countries have reported cases of Omicron so far. Scientists said that the variant contains unique mutations that may make it more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.

President Joe Biden said that the travel bans were meant to buy the U.S. time to learn more about the variant and prepare. But two days after the ban was institute, the first case of Omicron was detected in California on Wednesday. New York State has confirmed five cases since then.

As soon as there is community transmission within a country, travel bans lose much of their effectiveness, said Aubree Gordon, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

“What's going to be important is not travel bans but actually trying to control local epidemics,” Gordon said.  

Are Travel Bans Effective?

Earlier in the pandemic, some countries prohibited travelers from regions with high COVID-19 case rates or put a blanket ban on all foreigners. New Zealand, for instance, nearly eliminated COVID-19 among its residents for several months by closing its borders.

A study found that restricting travel can help delay the spread of COVID-19, but only if coupled with other strategies like mask-wearing, self-isolation and proper handwashing.

“The success of a travel restriction really depends on good public health infrastructure, good testing and surveillance in a country for that to be really successful,” said Daniel Tisch, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Case Western University.

“If you can buy time, any amount of time would be helpful because we're still learning so much about Omicron,” he added. “On the other hand, I'm just not sure the current restrictions will buy us any time.”

Additionally, isolating certain countries or regions can seem punitive. Researchers in the Netherlands said they found Omicron in two samples that may not be tied to travelers from South Africa. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, told the United Nations that travel bans targeting Africa "attack global solidarity."

“There's a great concern that travel bans can be discriminatory. They can lead to stigmatization of populations and groups of individuals and can further marginalize some groups of at-risk individuals,” Tisch said.

Blanket travel bans, the WHO said, are ineffective at stopping the international spread of the virus. Further, countries may be hesitant to share epidemiological and genetic sequencing data to avoid facing travel bans.

“With Omicron, this is a particular concern because it provides a disincentive for countries or regions to provide molecular testing and reporting,” Tisch said. “It can inhibit research collaborations that are important for addressing the COVID-19 and the variants that are emerging.”

Complicating International Travel

Rather than shuttering borders, local mitigation strategies may be best at minimizing the spread at home.

President Biden said he would extend the mask mandate for travelers on airplanes, trains, and buses until March 2022. All international travelers visiting the U.S. must test for COVID-19 within one day of departure, regardless of their vaccination status or nationality.

With cases cropping up around the world, health officials are urging caution for those still planning to travel abroad. The WHO advises people who feel sick, have not been fully vaccinated, have an increased risk for infection or severe illness, or are aged 60 and older to postpone travel to minimize their potential exposure.

“Rules are rapidly changing in different countries and new requirements are going into place, and people can get trapped with border closings and cancellations of flights,” Gordon said. "I'm not saying not to travel, but to think about your travel—particularly international travel—and realize that there could be significant delays.”

Researchers are still gathering the data necessary to understand how well the current vaccines hold up against the new variant. Until then, getting vaccinated and receiving a booster shot remain the best way to protect yourself and limit your transmission to others.

“The current variants are bad enough—there’s no need to wait for something that's terrible to get vaccinated. We already have a very concerning pandemic,” Tisch said. “Vaccination right now is our greatest tool against COVID-19, regardless of any future variants that might emerge.”

What This Means For You

If you're planning to travel internationally, check the State Department’s website for up-to-date information on areas where travel is restricted due to the emergence of Omicron. Be prepared for restrictions and COVID-19 safety protocols to change.

1 Source
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  1. Chinazzi M, Davis J, et al. The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Science. 24 Apr 2020. Vol 368, Issue 6489. DOI: 10.1126/science.aba9757.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.