Will the lifting of international travel restrictions earlier this month turn out to be another example of premature relaxation? On November 8, the Biden Administration welcomed back to the U.S. all international visitors who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 after 19 months of pandemic-related border restrictions. Now, just under three weeks later, the emergence of a new “highly mutated” variant of the Covid-19 coronavirus is prompting a number of countries to enact more international travel restrictions again.
Welcome to another “yo” in what’s becoming a “yo-yo” for travelers.
As I described on Thursday for Forbes, this new variant, currently known as the not-so-easy-to-remember B.1.1.529 variant, has over 50 different mutations with over 30 changes to the spike protein compare to the original version of the virus. The large number of mutations has led people to call this variant a “highly mutated” or “heavily mutated” or “oh-geez-not-another-Delta-esque-variant-when-I-mistakenly-acted-as-if-the-pandemic-were-over” variant. The big questions are whether this variant can readily evade the immune protection offered by vaccination or previous infection and whether this variant is more transmissible and harmful than previous versions. Data suggests that this new variant has been spreading rapidly in South Africa over the past couple of weeks.
As we’ve seen time and time again, the Covid-19 coronavirus doesn’t behave like that wild weekend spent in Las Vegas that involved candles, masks, and an ox. What happens in one location doesn’t necessarily stay in that location. The B.1.1.529 variant may have already spread well beyond the southern African region. There have been reports of the variant being detected among people in Hong Kong, Belgium, and Israel who had recently traveled in different parts of Africa. One example is a vaccinated person who returned to Israel from Malawi, as the Times of Israel reported. Marc Van Ranst, MD, PhD, a Professor of Virology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, tweeted about another example:
Unless you already have a very aggressive Covid-19 coronavirus testing and surveillance system in place, any reported cases of the variant may be just the tip of Iceberg lettuce. For every reported case, there may be a complex salad of many more unreported cases running around. Or walking around. Or texting around.
Therefore, swift action may be needed in order to contain this new variant, at least until it can be determined how much of a threat the B.1.1.529 variant may be. That’s why European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted the following:
As Euronews reported, Germany, Italy, and France have already announced restrictions on air travel from the southern African region with the Netherlands poised to follow suit.
European Union (EU) countries haven’t been the only countries increasing travel restrictions. The U.K., which is not longer part of the EU due to that whole “Brexit” thing, has temporary halted flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Israel has placed South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Eswatini on its “red countries” list. Foreign nationals from such “red countries” will not be allowed to visit Israel, and Israelis will not be allowed to visit “red countries.” Expect other countries around the world to follow suit.
How about the U.S.? Well, the Biden Administration’s decision to lift international travel restrictions for those who are vaccinated was risky. As of November 24, only about 59% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. Many Americans have not been following face mask and social distancing recommendations. Even though the Delta variant surge from the Summer seemed to be subsiding in October, the U.S. had never really gotten the Covid-19 coronavirus under control. Plus, the country was heading into the Winter months when colder and drier weather, indoor Holiday gatherings, and Holiday travel could be perfect storms to drive up Covid-19 coronavirus transmission again. All of this left the U.S. rather open to being engulfed by the Covid-19 coronavirus again like a hot dog in a bun factory. So the recent upswing in Covid-19 cases in the U.S. hasn’t been that surprising, as I described for Forbes on November 22. And that was even before things got “highly mutated.”
Rather than such a drastic lifting of travel restrictions, it may have been better for the U.S. to ease travel restrictions more gradually based on achieving different clearly-defined milestones. For example, achieving a progression of vaccination coverage levels along with reductions in measured virus activity could then result in the partial lifting of certain travel restrictions. Such a more progressive approach could have helped businesses and the general public aim for different milestones and help them better understand the scientific rational behind different restrictions. It could also make it easy to dial back to slightly more stringent precautions when upticks in the virus activity occur.
Instead, throughout this pandemic, many decision makers in the U.S. have alternated between being too late with Covid-19 precautions and being too premature in relaxing such precautions. For example, 2020 was chock full of policy makers ignoring warning signs, not acting quickly enough, and prematurely declaring the pandemic as under control. As time eventually showed, the pandemic was about as under control as an all-cat version of Dancing with the Stars.
As another example, in mid-May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed their guidelines so that those fully vaccinated no longer needed to wear face masks while indoors in public. As I covered back then for Forbes, this seemed like a premature relaxation since the U.S. hadn’t yet achieved high enough vaccination coverages to really interrupt transmission of the virus and businesses had no real way of confirming whether people were fully vaccinated. As a result, many people both vaccinated and unvaccinated ditched face mask use, which made it much more difficult to re-institute face mask use when the Delta variant began spreading and caused a Covid-19 surge in the Summer. As you know (or maybe you don’t know), anything premature can leave things very messy and people very confused.
A better approach would have been to tell businesses and the public the thresholds needed to relax face mask use. This could have further motivated everyone to push each other to achieve such thresholds.
Not following a clearer science-based progression has left many confused over when and why Covid-19 precautions are needed. It’s a bit like being with a significant other who doesn’t seem to be following larger principles and goals when acting. One day your significant other tells you that he or she only wants to be with you. The next day your significant other is taking dance lessons with his or her “best friend” and forgets your birthday. Such a situation may leave you wondering, “what the bleep is he or she going to do now?”
Such a situation also leaves the country much more vulnerable when nature inevitably throws another curve ball. As the B.1.1.529 variant is showing, the virus is not going to announce on Instagram or Twitter whenever it is preparing for a new variant to arrive. The virus doesn’t go on Jimmy Kimmel Live and say, “I’m really excited about this new variant to be released on November with all these mutations. By the way, where is Matt Damon?” This isn’t like a new Marvel series that only emerges after a bunch of previews, trailers, and other promos have been dropped. No, the virus is more like that person who justifies his or her cheating after the fact, essentially saying, “yeah, you should have paid more attention before.”
So, it’s a good idea to put a pause on non-essential travel for the next few months if you can. Keep your travel plans for the upcoming Winter months as flexible as possible. It’s not clear yet how much of a problem this new B.1.1.529 variant may be. A World Health Organization (WHO) committee is meeting today (November 26) to determine whether B.1.1.529 should be considered a variant of interest or a variant of concern and whether it deserves a Greek letter name such as the Nu variant. You may not want to make any Nu travel plans until you see what comes out of this WHO meeting and what scientific studies say about the B.1.1.529 variant.