Experts are skeptical that travel bans could stop the spread of new versions of the coronavirus

LONDON: As nations after nations rushed to close borders with Britain this week, the moves brought back memories of the way the world reacted after the coronavirus first became widespread in the spring. Most of these initial travel bans came too late, set after the virus had already taken root in communities far and wide.
This time, with countries trying to stop the spread of a new, perhaps more contagious, variant of the coronavirus identified by Britain, it may be too late. It is not known how widely the variant varies, experts say, and the bans threaten to cause greater economic and emotional difficulties as the toll that the virus heals continues to rise.
“It’s idiotic” was the rough assessment of Dr. Peter Kremsner, director of the University Hospital Tübingen in Germany. “If this mutant was only on an island, only then does it make sense to close the borders to England, Scotland and Wales. But if it has spread, then we have to fight the new mutant everywhere.”
He noted that the scientific understanding of the mutation was limited and the dangers unclear, and described it as a naive idea that the variant was not already widespread outside Britain.
Also, Britain has some of the most sophisticated genomic surveillance efforts in the world, which has enabled scientists there to discover a variant when it could go unnoticed elsewhere, experts said.
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said member states would try to devise a coherent approach to any threat posed by the variant. He currently wrote on Twitter, “Restricting travel to expansion is prudent until we get better information.”
But he remarked, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
With growing calls for the United States to join the dozens of states that are introducing travel bans from Britain, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, called for caution, saying there is a good chance the variant already existed.
“I don’t think that kind of draconian approach is needed,” he told PBS NewsHour on Monday night. “I think we should seriously consider requiring people to be tested before they come here from the UK.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic had agreed to seek a negative coronavirus test result from passengers boarding flights from Britain to New York. In the absence of federal action, other state and local leaders called for similar measures before the peak of the holiday travel days.
Many countries already need a negative coronavirus test to enter, but stopping all travel between states is an even more burdensome proposal.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has called on members of the bloc to lift general bans from Britain so that important travel can take place. But at the moment, nations seem to prefer to set their own rules. Late Tuesday, France withdrew at the border closure, which it announced on Sunday that it had stranded more than 1,000 truck drivers. Now, it is said, selected groups of people can cross the line if they have recently been tested for the virus.
The situation is convulsing the passenger industry, which has already been ravaged by a pandemic, forcing millions to change their vacation plans and injecting a fresh dose of anxiety at the end of a gloomy year.
At the same time, a separate variant of the virus is causing concern in South Africa. At least five countries – Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey – have banned travelers coming from South Africa.
Sweden blocked travel from Denmark after reports that a British variant was discovered there. And Saudi Arabia has gone even further, suspending all international air travel to the kingdom for at least a week.
The South African variant became the subject of intensive scientific research after doctors there discovered that people infected with it carry an increased viral load – a higher concentration of the virus in the upper respiratory tract. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more serious symptoms.
Since it is not known how widespread these two variants are, it is impossible to estimate what effects attempts to isolate Britain and South Africa will have on their retention.
With its sophisticated genomic surveillance efforts, Britain has sequenced about 150,000 coronavirus genomes in an attempt to identify mutations. That’s about half of the world’s genomic data on the virus, said Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium and professor of microbiology at the University of Cambridge.
“If you find something somewhere, you’ll probably find it here first,” Peacock said. “If it happens in places that don’t have any sequencing, you won’t find it at all,” she added, unless they conducted other tests that proved useful in identifying the variant.
In Wales, a country of 3 million people, geneticists sequenced more coronavirus genomes last week than researchers investigated during an entire pandemic in France, a country of 67 million, said Thomas Connor, a professor specializing in pathogen variation at Cardiff University.
“Similar variants are likely to appear around the world,” he said. “And there are variants that are likely to appear in other places that are spreading locally and that would be completely ignored because there is no order.”
British officials said that the first case of the variant, which is now widely spread in the country, was discovered in Kent in the southeast of England on September 20. By November, about a quarter of cases in London – an international trade hub – involved a new variant. Just a few weeks later, the variant was estimated to be responsible for almost two-thirds of cases in wider London.
That means that by the time Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Saturday night to announce serious new locking measures for millions of people in and around London, the variant had been spreading for months.
Officials in France and Germany acknowledged on Tuesday that the variant may already be circulating in their countries. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said several cases with the new variant had been detected in Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands. And health officials from Australia and Italy have reported cases of passengers from Britain.
Proponents of the travel ban said they could play a role in reducing the number of new variants.
“Numbers matter,” Emma Hodcroft, a researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland, wrote on Twitter. “The number of people with the new variant in continental Europe is probably still small: with testing, search, identification and restrictions, we could prevent them from transmitting the virus.”
If the variant proves to be significantly more contagious than the others in circulation and becomes more widespread, this could complicate global vaccination efforts.
Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech, who co-developed with Pfizer the first vaccine approved in the West to fight coronavirus, warned that it would be two weeks before full laboratory results would allow a fuller understanding of how mutations can change vaccine efficacy.
“We believe there is no cause for concern until we get the data,” he said.
If an adapted vaccine is needed, it could be ready within six weeks, Sahin told a news conference on Tuesday. But that will require additional regulator approval, which could increase waiting times, he said.
He also said a more effective virus would make it harder to achieve the levels of immunity needed to end the pandemic.
“If the virus becomes more effective in infecting humans,” he said, “it may need an even higher vaccination rate to ensure that normal life can continue without interruption.”