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With US swamped by omicron, Biden scraps travel bans


With US swamped by omicron, Biden scraps travel bans

Craig Hastings | Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday issued a proclamation revoking controversial travel restrictions targeting southern Africa where the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus variant was first detected in late November.

The travel restrictions on eight countries in southern Africa—Botswana, Eswatini/Swaziland, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—will be lifted at 12:01am ET on December 31.

The revocation was long sought by public health experts, who say such travel bans are ineffective and harmful.

Since their initial introduction, experts have noted that travel bans do not prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Indeed, health officials determined omicron was spreading in countries outside southern Africa before some bans took effect. It is now found in more than 100 countries worldwide.

The US enacted its bans November 30 and reported detecting its first omicron case December 1. Omicron has since overtaken delta as the dominant variant in the US, leading to a steep rise in cases. As of December 25, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that omicron accounts for nearly 59 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the country. (This is a revised estimate from reports last week that it accounted for 73 percent of cases)

And while travel restrictions demonstrably did little to contain or slow omicron, experts note clear harms. Travel restrictions place economic burdens on countries that first detect new variants—whether the variant developed in that country or not. Further, that economic punishment could deter countries from reporting concerning variants in the future. And any reporting delays waste precious time that could be used to get ahead of a dangerous variant.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing December 1.

Despite the consistent criticism, the administration has repeatedly argued that the restrictions can slow the introduction of omicron the US. It’s unclear if that was true, however, and public health experts have argued that stronger testing and vaccination requirements for international travel could be just as effective.

In the past weeks, the Biden administration has tightened testing requirements for international travel, which the president cited in his proclamation Tuesday.

“In light of these changed circumstances, and based on the recommendation of the CDC, I have determined that it is in the interests of the United States to revoke Proclamation 10315,” President Biden said in the proclamation Tuesday. “The travel restrictions imposed by that proclamation are no longer necessary to protect the public health.”



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