As world leaders rushed to restrict travelers from several African countries where a new, potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant was identified, public health experts warned that the move may discourage other nations from reporting future variants out of fear of facing the same restrictions.
It's not yet clear how contagious the Omicron variant is or how effective current vaccines are against it, but fears over the strain's potentially high transmissibility led the US and a slew of other countries, including the UK, Italy, France, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Morocco, and the Netherlands to restrict travel from South Africa, where the variant was discovered, and its neighboring countries. On Friday, President Joe Biden described the travel ban, which does not apply to US citizens and permanent residents, as a "precautionary measure" meant to give officials time to gather more information about the new variant.
But experts told BuzzFeed News they doubted the policy would have much of an impact on the spread of the variant.
"Travel bans can buy time if you’re in front of a virus, but I don't think we’re in front of it," said Dr. Ingrid Katz, associate faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.
As of Saturday, dozens of cases have been reported in the UK, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, Botswana, and South Africa, which first reported the variant to the World Health Organization on Wednesday. The rapid identification of the new variant in countries outside of southern Africa has underscored what we've seen at multiple points in the pandemic: Travel restrictions don't stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Instead, experts said the policy poses economic harm and stigmatizes countries that should be applauded for sounding the alarm. It could also, they fear, disincentivize other countries who discover new variants from reporting cases of the Omicron variant or other game-changing versions of the coronavirus.
"They discovered a new variant, they sequenced it, they let the world know. Shouldn't you be praising them?" said Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. "What is the incentive for the next country that identifies the next important variant if their reward is what President Biden did to South Africa?"
On the ground, the restrictions have already created chaos. As the Netherlands scrambled to enact their restrictions, two flights from South Africa were left temporarily quarantined on the tarmac in Amsterdam for hours before hundreds of the passengers were finally tested for COVID.
Katz, whose research has focused on the HIV response in sub-Saharan Africa, noted that it was largely because of South Africa's investment in genomic surveillance that they were able to identify the variant so quickly. Though South Africa's discovery of the Omicron variant coincided with a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, the country's number of daily infections — 2,828 on Friday — pales in comparison to other countries. The US recorded nearly 50,000 new cases on the same day.
"What a terrible message we’re sending to South Africa and other nations who are willing to be forthright and share important information," Katz said.
She described the travel restrictions as "political theater" and suggested they were discriminatory in nature.
"You're looking now at cases they’re popping up all over Europe. Are we putting on travel restrictions there?" Katz said, adding that she didn't think it made sense to allow Americans in those countries to travel to the US but not people of other nationalities. "People can travel safely if there are some basic public health precautions in place."
Experts said the US and other countries should instead focus on enhanced testing of passengers upon arrival and mandatory quarantines.
"That would have a much lower economic impact than just canceling all of the flights," said Gerardo Chowell-Puente, a professor of epidemiology at the Georgia State University School of Public Health.
And, above all, vaccinating the rest of the world should be at the forefront of the pandemic response moving forward.
"Vaccine inequity and just a lack of public health preparedness absolutely lead to situations where we're going to continue to pop off these variants because viruses mutate — that's what they do," Katz said.