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Temporarily close the borders to Brazil and India to halt COVID variants

Temporarily close the borders to Brazil and India to halt COVID variants
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Public health should be put before politics, especially during a pandemic. This applies directly to travel. We must temporarily close our borders to travelers from India and Brazil, as well as any country that develops an out-of-control variant-driven COVID-19 outbreak worse than our own.

With such an easily transmissible virus as this one, U.S. travel restrictions have been insufficient to stop the spread from other countries to ours. This disturbing trend is continuing. Currently, at a time when more than a third of Americans have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and one-quarter are fully vaccinated, we remain vulnerable, especially to resistant variants such as the Brazilian P1 and the so-called “double mutant” B.1.617 variant found in India.

Both countries have vaccinated only a small percentage of their population. Brazil has relied on the faulty China Sinovac vaccine, which has been found to be only 50 percent effective there. India has approved COVAXIN, which is produced by local drug company Bharat Biotech, and the AstraZeneca vaccine.    

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Cases in Brazil are skyrocketing, averaging over 70,000 new cases per day over the past week, with close to 4,000 deaths per day. In India, there were over 150,000 new cases on Saturday, with close to 1,000 deaths daily. Variants represent an increasing percent of the cases in both countries.  

Currently, the U.S. Embassy has issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory for Brazil, urging Americans not to travel there. Those who do travel will require COVID-19 testing within three days prior to travel. The Travel Advisory in India is at Level 2, meaning travelers should exercise increased caution. This is an underreaction on the part of the Biden administration.

In terms of travel from Brazil, foreign nationals are not allowed into the U.S. if they've been there during the past 14 days. Even these restrictions are insufficient to staunch the spread of these dangerous variants into our country. Even “essential workers” can unintentionally spread these variants here. A negative COVID-19 test can be inaccurate or taken too soon.

And despite all the restrictions, travel continues anyway. Just over 2 million people travelled from Brazil to the U.S. in 2019. This dropped to 424,000 in 2020, but this is still plenty of people to spread a virus.

For India, the numbers were similar. In 2019, before the pandemic, 1.7 million people travelled here, but in 2020 the number of travelers dipped to 340,000. And these numbers don’t necessarily include people who travel here after spending time in other countries.

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The problem with the emerging variants is very concerning. Perhaps, most disturbingly, data from Israel just showed that the South African variant, which contains the worrisome E484K mutation found in the Brazilian variant, was eight times more effective at breaking through the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine than were other strains.

The case numbers are very low in South Africa right now, but clearly we should be doing our best to stop travel from any country where vaccine-resistant variants (which are not yet common here) are found.

Last February, after President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE correctly ordered travel restrictions to and from China, I travelled to Dulles Airport and interviewed then-Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli as well as several Customs and Border Protection agents. They demonstrated to me just how easy it was for possible COVID-19 patients to bypass travel restrictions by not revealing their country of origin, denying symptoms, and taking Tylenol to suppress fever. These holes in the system are precisely why restrictions or advisories are not sufficient. Temporary travel bans (except for the most essential workers) to and from countries with a burgeoning problem with new variants are the only way.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, "COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science."