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Will travel bans stop the spread of Omicron?

The short answer is it’s too little, too late.

Will travel bans stop the spread of Omicron?

Omicron’s foray into Planet Earth has triggered a familiar refrain – a  slew of travel bans against countries, this time southern African states in a bid to slow the spread of the new variant, thought to be highly transmissible and branded a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization last week.

Brazil, Canada, the United States, and most EU countries are among states that have banned travellers from southern African countries, eliciting a warning from South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa against “health apartheid”, saying the bans will damage travel and tourism industries that sustain livelihoods in the region.

The WHO’s response has been clear: that travel bans do not work and can disincentivise countries from reporting and “sharing epidemiological and sequencing data”. In other words, blanket bans on travelling can motivate states to be less transparent about data on the virus.

So much to do, so little time

Experts warn the global response to Omicron is too little, too late.

“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 Grepin, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, writes for the Washington Post.

Experts argue that travel bans only work if they are imposed quickly and in tandem with other domestic measures that enforce good practice in combating the virus, like social distancing, mask mandates, strict quarantine periods in hotels, only allowing vaccinated travellers to fly and testing before and after travel.

For travel bans to be effective in stemming the virus, Dr. David Hamer, a professor of global health at Boston University School of Medicine told Vox that borders should be shut down, travellers should be tested before a flight and five to seven days later, and all travellers should undergo mandatory quarantine.

The efficacy of the measures hinges on effectively enforcing them, Dr. Hamer warns.

Grepin advocates for a 14-day quarantine as being key to keeping a virus out, with the measure being applied indiscriminately to all travellers across the board, instead of only some.

Grepin also prescribes strong domestic policies, like Australia’s strict lockdowns, to reinforce long quarantines, making border control measures an “integral component of the overall national response…as they are insufficient to control localized epidemics on their own.”

Leaky borders

Recent history displays the futility of travel bans when it comes to staving off the spread of the Delta and Alpha Covid variants. Travel restrictions after the original strain that was detected in Wuhan slowed down the virus by only a few days, experts say.

Then again, slowing the spread by even a few days gives countries time to “scale up public health measures,” Brian Wahl, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Quartz India.

He adds: “Any ban should be accompanied by a plan of action for how that time will be used” – but that is not always the reality.

The US ban is porous at best, banning travellers from only southern African countries but not restricting travel for Americans coming home despite the possibility that they may be virus carriers.

The US also desisted from placing bans on travellers from Israel, UK and Europe even though cases have already been detected there, in Europe’s case, days before South Africa alerted the WHO about Omicron.

The Biden administration is expected to announce steps next week that include extending requirements for travellers to wear masks through mid-March and requiring inbound international travellers to get tested within a day of departure.

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