Travel bans didn’t work with Delta, it won’t work with Omicron either

We dedicated today’s newsletter to the new B.1.1.529 variant, which the WHO has now decided to name Omicron, and not ‘Nu’ as was previously thought.  Things have moved on since we published it, so it’s worth taking stock of where we are as well as emphasising why the blunt instrument of travel bans is both misguided, and won’t work.

In terms of travel bans, the UK’s decision to red-list South Africa and a series of neighbouring countries has been followed by the European Union and other countries including Israel.

With the Gulf ‘super hubs’ having been previously seen as virus spreaders (due to people from different risk regions mixing), Emirates has meanwhile suspended flights to South Africa.

Switzerland is going even further, introducing quarantine not only from Southern Africa, but also from countries where the new variant has been detected, including Belgium.

So what is our take on the situation?

1 – First of all, it’s worth emphasising that though the mutations seen in Omicron are believed to be of concern when it comes to transmissibility and vaccine evasion, we simply don’t know enough about it yet.  We probably won’t know how it fares against the existing vaccines for at least two more weeks.

However, some of the scare stories doing the rounds are nothing more than dangerous click-bait.  Here’s a Twitter thread by a Moderna senior scientist who posts under the name ‘Chise’, stressing that there is “NO plausible scenario this will take us back to square one.”  In fact, so far there is no evidence from South Africa that the variant evades the current vaccines.

2 – However, while reaching for a border closure and travel ban has the benefit of making Governments look decisive, they won’t keep the variant out.

As public health expert Stefan Baral has pointed out, border closures never keep viruses out while we keep the supply chains we need for modern life running. It didn’t work for Delta, even in countries like Australia and New Zealand which had tough quarantine policies, it won’t work for Omicron.

And then there is an inevitable delay in the period of incubation, sequencing, reporting and so on.  In other words, by the time a case is reported, there will be many more in the pipeline.

3 – As a result, it’s almost certainly already here. ‘Here’ being wherever you read this. The Belgian case reported today apparently came via IST and Egypt.

4 – The move by Western Governments to shut borders sends a message that is problematic.  It punishes South Africa for its ability to detect the new variant, and for its openess in sharing this information.  South Africa’s health minister said the same, stating that “South Africa has been punished for the wrong reasons.”

You can imagine that countries in future may not be so willing to share this kind of information, if the price for doing so is a travel ban and a heavy economic hit.

5 – There is an argument that these travel bans will at least buy countries time.  Time to do what?  Speed up vaccinations?  Further push the development of some of the promising meds in development?  If we accept that we can’t keep Omicron out forever, it’s incumbent on authorities to explain what exactly they intend to do with these extra few weeks that they may have bought us.

6 – It’s been argued that these new variants are a problem of our own making.  In the words of Achal Prabhala, a campaigner for intellectual property reform in healthcare (via science journalist Amy Maxmen)

“Instead of solving the problem by vaccinating the world & cutting off new variants, rich countries seem prepared to fork over more money for boosters, & live in a state of endless fear.”
“The lesson here is not OMG NU! It’s that vaccine equity is about more than just altruism. We have the tools to prevent potential new variants from emerging and we’ve failed to use them effectively. None of us are safe until all of us are safe. Vaccinate the world.”
Dr Rasmussen is right, and it’s one reason why in our position papers at the end of 2020 and early 2021, we (among other things) urged the airline industry to be proactive in campaigning on the subject of vaccine equity, as it’s in their direct interest to do so.  With variants being more likely to emerge in populations where the vaccination rate is low (in South Africa it is currently 35%), we’ll likely see the same sequence of events play out in future with ‘Sigma’, ‘Phi’ and ‘Omega’ strains, until we finally solve the vaccination issue, or until the virus perhaps mutates and ‘burns’ itself out.



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