Travel bans punish countries for doing necessary work to end the pandemic, South Africa epidemiologist says

Last week, South African scientists alerted the world that they had discovered a new COVID-19 variant, known as omicron, which was responsible for a recent spike in infections in the country. The response has been a scramble across the world as governments–still dealing with the impact of the delta variant–changed policies to adapt to the threat posed by omicron.

In the United States, this included a travel ban implemented almost immediately against South Africa and several other countries. The move prompted criticism from South African authorities and divided many public health experts – some finding the ban to be punitive, others prudent.

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South African president Cyril Ramaphosa criticized travel bans made against the country.

“We call upon these countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our other southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions and lift the ban they have imposed before any further damage is done on our economies and to the livelihoods of our people. There is no scientific justification whatsoever for keeping these restrictions in place.”

During a news conference on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki justified the travel ban, saying it was not intended to “punish” South Africa for its early detection of the omicron variant.

“The objective here is not to punish, it is to protect the American people. As you just heard, the president say, this is not going to prevent, it is going to delay and that delay is going to help us have necessary time to do the research by our health and medical teams to get more people vaccinated and get more people boosted,” Psaki said.

We spoke with South African epidemiologist, Professor Salim Abdool Karim about how news of this latest variant was handled by the U.S. and what it could mean for the international public health community. Karim served as South Africa’s co-chair to it’s Ministerial Advisory Committee–a body of public health experts advising government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and became a widely-recognized figure in giving the South African public information on the pandemic and advice on how to protect themselves.

He has also been a recognizable figure in HIV/AIDS research and was part of an effort in the 1990’s and 2000’s by activists and lawyers to pressure the South African government to better address the HIV/AIDS crisis.

What effect has the travel ban on South Africa had on the country?

SALIM ABDOOL KARIM, Director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa and a Professor of Global Health at Columbia University.

“The immediate reaction to the announcement of the variant was just outrageous and it was an overreaction. I was taken aback that they would take this kind of action because what it’s basically saying to the rest of the world that in future, if you have good surveillance systems and you have in place the mechanisms to identify a new variant and to identify it early, then whatever you do, don’t tell the world, keep it secret. Let some other country do the announcement so that you don’t have to bear the burden of the reaction that we’ve had [to endure].

Because you know what it basically is doing, is punishing South Africa and making South Africa take the economic impact. And what makes it more ridiculous is that this variant is now spreading in many countries, including those that have instituted the ban. I think the part that got me was that when the world is facing a threat, that’s the time that we need to stand together against the virus. Instead, we are standing against each other, we are building fences, we are building barriers where we really should be building bridges and we should be finding ways to work with each other to solve this problem.”

What effect do you think this could have on other countries alerting the international community to new variants?

ABDOOL KARIM:
“I think the way in which South Africa has had to deal with the impact. I think at one stage we had about 40 countries that had banned travel from South Africa. The net effect is a huge economic loss, especially because it’s our holiday season. We get a lot of travelers this time of the year. So what we are saying to the world is ‘there’s nothing to be gained by establishing surveillance systems to identify variants like this. All you will get is punishment. So don’t do it.’ That’s the message, actually.”

How fair is the argument made by the White House that the travel ban was to delay the emergence of omicron in the U.S.?

ABDOOL KARIM:
“So I think the travel ban may have, and it’s a big ‘if’, may have some short term benefit and it will be very short term, if any, in reducing the initial seeding of the virus. The virus is already seeded, so you can’t undo that because the virus has spread before we even knew it existed. And of course, most people who spread it are not even symptomatic, so they don’t know that they’re spreading it. What’s at issue here is that even if it has an impact, even if it has some benefit, it will be so small and so short-lived that it’s really not worth implementing. And it’s a big ‘if’ if it does have any benefit. So I think it is counterproductive. It led to a situation of bad faith and it was actually a blow for science. It was a blow for transparency. And instead of us scientists discussing with our British counterparts, ‘How are we going to deal with the variant,’ we are discussing with them, ‘What information do they need to lift the travel ban?’ That’s so it’s distracting us from the task at hand.”

What is the role of the U.S. in boosting vaccine rates globally?

ABDOOL KARIM:
“You know, it’s a very unusual situation. When faced with a pandemic, your most powerful weapon against this threat needs to have a systematic way in which it is made available and distributed. You cannot take your most powerful weapon and put it in the hands of pharmaceutical executives to distribute because they have a different set of objectives than public health goals. And that’s what we’ve basically done. We’ve said to the world “the way we will distribute the benefits of a vaccine is that we’ll let the private companies do it.” And so that’s what we have.”

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“So a classic case was South Africa. We had purchased 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Now we were waiting for delivery of our doses and what happened in between is Israel decided it will provide booster doses to its population. And so the doses, as you know, go to Israel first. Why Israel first? Because the drug company decided that Israel is a favored market. And so we must just go to the back of the queue. And every time a favored market comes forward, they jump the queue. So we kept ending up, being postponed and being postponed. And so when we got our vaccines, it was quite late. We were only getting vaccines around June. That was the time when the U.S. had pretty much vaccinated most of the public that was willing to be vaccinated.”

“So we are in a situation where the distribution systems and the benefits of the tools like a vaccine have taken us down a path where it has really become dysfunctional and it has become counterproductive to dealing with the pandemic because you cannot deal with a pandemic in any way in which only one country or a handful of countries vaccinate their populations while the virus is running rampant in other countries. That’s no solution to a pandemic.”