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Can travel bans prevent the spread of new variants?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads, one early response is familiar from the start of the pandemic - travel bans. The U.S. restricted flights from several African countries. And even though a couple dozen countries all over the world have now identified the strain, those limits on travel from southern Africa remain in effect.

We're going to talk about whether travel restrictions work with Yale Institute of (ph) Global Health Director Saad Omer. Welcome.

SAAD OMER: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Setting aside the specifics of these travel restrictions, can you say broadly whether shutting down flights can be an effective response in a pandemic?

OMER: Well, shutting down flights can work, theoretically, to only delay the arrival of a significant virus. Moreover, in order for a travel ban to work, it has to be really early and it has to be so drastic as to shut down all travel into a country by 90- to 95%. So yes, theoretically, it can work, but it can't be a selective ban of flights from a few countries and it can't be at a time when, you know, this current travel ban happened.

SHAPIRO: We know now that even though the omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, there's research suggesting that it was already in Europe at that point. So what did you think when you heard President Biden announce these restrictions on travel from eight countries in southern Africa?

OMER: I was a bit surprised. The ban, even in the early part, was a bit perhaps unwarranted because it was unlikely to even delay the arrival of the virus, which was the rationale given, because it wasn't shutting down - and for understandable reasons - 90-, 95% of the traffic coming into the U.S. It was only focusing on a few countries when even there were very early indications that the virus was already in multiple countries. On top of that, as part of the concern is that this is not a policy without cost because we know that it discourages countries from reporting new variants. And it's in all our interest to find out not just the existence, but the intensity of circulation of any new variant.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, we are now seeing leaders in southern Africa saying, we're basically being punished for having been good global citizens doing the science, reporting the new strain because of these travel bans. So do you think that as the pandemic continues, other countries where new, perhaps more dangerous strains might emerge could be less likely to reveal that to the world having seen what happened in South Africa?

OMER: Yeah, that's the fear. Because if you think about if you are a health minister in Central Africa and you are seeing some initial data and you have that incentive to say, why do I have to be the first one to report? Because if I do so, I will face domestic pushback for being a little too naive to report this and then having restrictions imposed on my country selectively. The selectiveness of that ban is very concerning to a lot of these countries and sets a really bad example.

SHAPIRO: Last year, the U.S. banned travel from China, where the virus first emerged, and then we saw many coronavirus cases come to the U.S. from Europe. And so do you think we could see something similar here with the omicron variant?

OMER: We are already seeing that. So it's like not only closing the barn door after the horse has left the barn, it's closing the barn door in the next farm over. It's not rational to do so, and it has costs. So yes, we can see a similar phenomenon here.

SHAPIRO: Are there things you think the U.S. could do in terms of international travel that would help limit the amount of omicron coming over from other countries short of sealing the borders and not letting anybody in?

OMER: Yeah, there are a few things the U.S. can do - more rational and stringent testing in terms of both testing on departure and arrival; and quarantine for a select number of individuals, perhaps not everyone; and making sure that during the travel, people are safe and there's a low probability of infection, for example, by making sure that, you know, there's a masking requirement. It's OK to add on top of testing - or actually desirable to add vaccination requirement. But the long-term solution - we can't get out of this pandemic, at least without a lot of harm, without vaccinating high numbers of people all around the world. There's no shortcut to that.

SHAPIRO: Epidemiologist Saad Omer is director of the Yale Institute of Global Health. Thanks for talking with us.

OMER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.