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Are travel bans effective against the coronavirus variant?

Kate Murphy
·Producer
·4 min read
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A newly identified variant of the coronavirus has led over 40 countries to impose travel restrictions against the United Kingdom, which registered a record number of daily cases on Tuesday.

“The spread is being driven by the new variant of the virus,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said over the weekend, announcing tighter restrictions ahead of the Christmas holiday. “It appears to spread more easily and may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the earlier strain.”

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual news conference, after chairing a COBRA meeting, which was called in response to increased travel restrictions amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, December 21, 2020. (Tolga Akmen/Pool via Reuters)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London on Monday. (Tolga Akmen/Pool/Reuters)

Much is still unknown about the coronavirus variant found in the United Kingdom, and such mutations are common among viruses as they move through populations. The new strain is being called SARS-CoV-2 VUI-202012/01 (“Variant Under Investigation”) and could potentially be more contagious. It’s unclear if it is deadlier.

The U.S. is not among the 40 countries with the new U.K. restrictions. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN this week that the plan would be to “follow it carefully, but don’t overreact to it.” Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s assistant secretary for health, similarly said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not made any recommendation to ban travel from Britain. “We just need to put everything on the table, have an open scientific discussion and make a best recommendation,” he said.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci speaks after US Vice President Mike Pence received the COVID-19 vaccine in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, December 18, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr. Anthony Fauci in Washington, D.C., on Friday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Are travel bans and restrictions even effective against the coronavirus?

Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel says, “Travel bans in general can be effective as a very blunt mechanism. And certainly we saw travel bans very broadly in the earlier part of this year, but that’s really a way to try to limit the virus to one geography.” While the U.S. began implementing travel restrictions against China on Feb. 2, it wasn’t until March 13 that travel restrictions against Europe were put in place. By then, Italy had more than 15,000 known cases and at least 1,000 deaths from the virus.

We have learned from looking backwards that there are European strains that have been responsible for some of the hot spots, particularly in New York at the beginning of the pandemic, but we have no proof that the U.K.’s strain under investigation is present in the United States,” Patel says.

But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he doesn’t want history to repeat itself with this new virus strain. “The coronavirus got on a plane in China and went to Europe and came here from Europe, and nobody said anything for two months in the federal government. And it had been coming for so long that it was then too late,” Cuomo said at a press conference this week.

Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks at Riverside Church during morning worship on the inequities in the Trump administration's vaccine distribution plan. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Riverside Church in New York City. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

He called on the federal government to ground flights from the U.K. to help prevent the new coronavirus variant from spreading. Cuomo also called on British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic to add New York state to the list of 120 countries that require passengers to produce a negative COVID-19 test before departure from the U.K. All three airlines had agreed to his request by the end of the day.

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But Patel says this form of testing has limitations. “Testing tells you just for that very particular moment if you have SARS-CoV-2 and could have COVID-19. But we know that you could easily have a negative test, board a plane, and then come off the plane and be positive hours later, but get passed through customs, pass through security,” she says.

And Patel says one state alone can only do so much against a highly infectious virus. “It’s hard to really isolate one state in particular; you really do need cooperation from the states that people travel to, and especially in a state like New York, we already know that there is incredible travel across Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, for example. And it would be more ideal to have those governors kind of working in a bloc together.”

Cuomo pointed out the same limitations unless the whole country is on board with the travel restrictions. “Otherwise, you’ll just have people fly into Chicago or somewhere else and get on a plane and fly to New York,” he told MSNBC. “You can’t control this virus state by state; we’re one nation, it’s impossible.”

Thumbnail cover photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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