Are travel bans effective at stopping the spread of the Omicron variant?

President Biden’s decision late last week to ban travel from eight southern African countries is unlikely to curb the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, an epidemiologist warns, and could even be counterproductive.

“While it feels attractive to do a travel ban because it shows action and power and protecting our borders, it actually doesn’t really have a lot of public health impact,” Dr. Stefan Baral, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Yahoo News.

Video transcript

ANTHONY FAUCI: We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States.

JEN PSAKI: There's a lot we don't know. So putting in place these travel restrictions was intended to give us more time to do the necessary evaluation, data, and testing required that our health experts are working around the clock to do. And they made this assessment and recommendation about the countries in where we would put in place these travel restrictions in order to give us that time.

ANTHONY FAUCI: We wanted to see if we could buy time temporarily. So I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact.

STEFAN BARAL: My name is Stefan Baral. I'm a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The reality is that we know very little about omicron. I work a fair bit in South Africa. I was recently there. It is their summertime. Things have slowed down a fair bit. They have a much lower case count than do we in the United States, including most regions of the United States right now. I will note that they saw a resurgence in Gauteng region, which is an incredibly large region of South Africa.

I think that travel bans have a role in the very, very early stage of an epidemic. So normally, what we would call in the syndromic stage. So that is to you see people with a new set of symptoms. You don't quite know what it is. It's very localized. And you could say, hey, in the city let's try and restrict movement city or out of this city. Once it's really out of a city and it's in multiple cities, the value and the benefits of a travel ban go down dramatically or any sort of restrictions on movement go down dramatically because we still have goods moving in and out and we still have people. And we don't know where it is already at that stage.

And so while it feels attractive to do like a travel ban because it shows action, and power, and protecting our borders or whatnot, it actually doesn't really have a lot of public health impact. But there's also risks of a travel ban. So one of the things that happens is that people rush to the airport, normally Americans, but also [AUDIO OUT] get to the States or get to Europe. They have that 48-hour grace period.

This is the same thing that happened with the ban on Chinese travel last year and across Europe in early 2020 when people crowded into 13 American airports. And I think those are super spreading events that caused a significant amount of seething across the United States because people hurried that. You don't create an environment where people want to report their symptoms because they don't really even know what happens to them if they report that they're not feeling well. And so you just don't create the type of environment where we can respond effectively to this. You reinforce xenophobias. The idea of this being selective to Southern Africa and not Europe and Asia I think is exquisitely problematic.

There's been really a politicization of this public health response that makes it difficult for politicians to show action. This idea of often what we call like a visible intervention bias. This idea that they showed really they were decisive. They did something. They closed the border. They protected Americans. If there was sort of one thing to share is for us to always pay attention to like what are the unmet needs that people continue to have that are driving infections because what drives infections drives variants. And so getting to the heart of those means not just like shaming people into it or convincing them, but really looking at what were those unmet needs. And I think that applies domestically. And I think that applies around the world.