Omicron is already global, tests for international flights are far better than African travel ban
After almost two years since the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19 made its presence felt around the globe, some lessons learned seem to be falling on deaf ears as several governments, including the U.S., are banning travel from several Southern African countries where the omicron variant was first detected.
When the virus first appeared in Wuhan, China, closing travel from the area served to slow its progression, but not stop it. By the time widespread travel bans were implemented, the virus had already spread across the globe.
Fast forward to the present. The problem now faced is that by the time a new variant is first detected, it has likely already spread to numerous countries. In such circumstances, travel bans are like closing the barn door after the horses have fled. Several places have already reported omicron variant cases, including Canada, the U.K., several European countries, Hong Kong and Israel — although the United States has banned travel only from African countries (so far). Of note, Israel has issued blanket travel restrictions for foreign nationals and foreigners wishing to enter their country, hoping to limit further spread of the variant within its borders.
Assessing omicron’s virulence and contagiousness, as well as the efficacy of the vaccines against this variant, remain open questions.
The omicron variant appears isolated to a number of locations. This is likely an illusion, since its presence can only be confirmed with detection — and detection requires robust surveillance testing with an intent to find the variant.
The transmission characteristics of the coronavirus makes it highly likely that it has already spread beyond the areas where cases have been detected, which means that it has likely already reached more countries that we know. This is why isolating known countries may seem like a good idea in theory, but falls woefully short in practice, since in a short amount of time, dozens of countries may qualify for isolation, including those who are imposing travel bans.
Given all this uncertainty, what can be done?
The best strategy is to test all travelers on international flights immediately prior to boarding and employ prevention measures to limit the spread of the virus like wearing face coverings during flights and at destinations. To accomplish such widespread testing, at-home testing kits are needed at international airports worldwide. Such a strategy should be implemented immediately, independent of omicron, since what is most critical for passengers’ safety is knowing who on a long-haul international flight may be infected — and prevent such people from boarding.
Mandating that all passengers be vaccinated is ideal but challenging to implement. Vaccine availability varies widely from nation to nation, with different vaccines available and approved in each country.
The bottleneck for widespread testing for all international flights is testing availability and the associated supply chain logistics.
The Biden administration has authorized ramping up testing capabilities, with testing capacity still falling woefully short almost two years into the pandemic. Anyone in the nation can get vaccinated at no cost, yet high-quality at-home testing kits can cost as much as $50, and are in short supply in many areas.
At-home testing kit production must be ramped up in the United States to between 1 billion and 3 billion kits manufactured per month and be available to everyone at no cost. Without this vital public health surveillance tool, the virus will continue to spread with significant risk of the omicron variant infiltrating our population.
The decision to ban travel from suspected areas where the omicron variant has penetrated is based on fear, not facts. Such kneejerk reactions end up causing more harm than good.
As the coronavirus continues to mutate, it is conceivable that new future variants can first arise in any country, including the United States. Setting precedents for attempted isolation can be used as international political weapons rather than as a risk mitigation strategy. It also encourages subterfuge, since no country wants to be labelled as the harbinger of a new variant with countries banning travel to and from them. A flawed and potentially dangerous message is sent when honest communication and good science are punished with travel bans.
As we approach the end of the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, using lessons learned and making sensible policies is in everyone’s best interest. We are all in this together. Cooperation, not separation and isolation, is how to best facilitate a safe environment. Travel bans are not only wrong, they may even cause harm to nations that want to work together to get the pandemic into the rearview mirror for all.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy.
Janet Jokela, MD, MPH, is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign. She is an infectious disease and public health physician.
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