'It disincentivises the country which reported the variant': Experts bat against travel bans to curb Omicron threat

Express News Service

BENGALURU: Travel bans in the light of detection of the new Omicron variant, are not a useful measure and their benefits are limited for a multitude of reasons, some experts say.

From what we know of the pandemic, by the time a travel ban is implemented, the virus would already be in circulation in the country, said noted epidemiologist, vaccinologist and public health expert Dr Chandrakant Lahariya. A travel ban may only help delay the entry of the variant.

“A key aspect is that if a travel ban is imposed for reporting new strains, it disincentivises the country which is documenting and reporting the variant honestly. They might stop reporting, fearing the economic impact of a ban. This is counterproductive,” Dr Lahariya explained.

He added that countries that have imposed the ban, have already reported cases of the new variant. Moreover, the ban does not affect countries that have the variant in circulation, but have not reported it yet, causing the virus to enter other countries this way.

In a thread on social media, Dr Giridhar Babu, epidemiologist and member of the Karnataka Covid Technical Advisory Committee, said Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong cannot be the only areas where Omicron has travelled. These areas probably have better surveillance and genomic sequencing and hence, have reported it in a timely manner. Absence of reporting is not absence of circulation, he cautioned.

“Imposing travel curbs, restricting entry from a few countries is not going to prevent or control the spread of Omicron. It’s akin to closing a stable door after a horse has bolted. Instead, identify clusters of cases of recent origin and do genomic sequencing,” Dr Babu said. Dr Lahariya said the way forward is stronger surveillance at the port of entry, containment, testing and genomic sequencing.  

There is no evidence that travel bans are effective, said Dr Vinod Scaria, genomics scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Institute Of Genomics And Integrative Biology, on twitter. He too said that in most cases, virus transmission would have already happened before the ban is imposed.