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By Saad B. Omer
Dr. Omer is the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.
Not long after scientists in South Africa discovered the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, a number of Western countries — including the United States — imposed travel bans on people traveling from southern African countries. The U.S. ban exempts American citizens and permanent residents.
Notably, Omicron has been identified in many other countries around the world, including the United States. Some data even suggests that it may have been circulating in Europe even before it was identified in southern Africa. Yet the bans remain.
President Biden acknowledged that the American travel ban was unlikely to stop the virus. But he justified it as a way of delaying the arrival of the new variant into the country. Others have justified the ban as a way to act “proactively” — as if there are no undesirable consequences of this policy.
Did the ban delay the arrival and spread of the new variant in the United States? How does it impact the efforts to control Covid-19 in the United States?
The science is nuanced. Even before the pandemic, scientists had studied the utility of travel bans after the emergence of a new respiratory virus. Most of the pre-Covid-19 pandemic research was conducted on potential influenza pandemics. Seasonal and pandemic influenza virus can be devastating, but it is less infectious than SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
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