Why Consultants Assume Journey Bans Will not Cease Coronavirus Variant Unfold

LONDON – As nation after nation rushed to close their borders with Britain this week, the movements were a reminder of how the world reacted after the coronavirus first became widespread in the spring. Most of these initial travel bans came too late and were put in place after the virus had already spread far and wide in communities.

It could also be too late this time around as countries try to stop the spread of a new, potentially contagious, variant of coronavirus identified by the UK. It is unknown how far the variant is already in circulation, experts say, and the bans threaten to create more economic and emotional troubles as the numbers caused by the virus continue to rise.

“It’s idiotic” was the blunt assessment of Dr. Peter Kremsner, the director of the Tübingen University Hospital in Germany. “If this mutant was only on the island, then it only makes sense to close the borders with England, Scotland and Wales. But if it has spread, we will have to fight the new mutant everywhere. “

He noted that scientific understanding of the mutation was limited and its dangers unclear, and described the notion that the variant had not already spread widely outside the UK as naive.

The UK also has some of the most sophisticated genomic surveillance efforts in the world, allowing scientists there to spot the variant when it might have gone unnoticed elsewhere, experts said.

Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, said member states would try to find a coherent approach to each threat posed by the variant. Right now he was writing on Twitter: “It is advisable to limit travel to dissemination until we have better information.”

But he noted, “Nobody is safe until everyone is safe.”

With growing demands for the United States to join the dozen of nations imposing travel bans from Britain, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease expert, as a caution, saying there was a good chance the variant was already there.

“I do not think that such a draconian approach is necessary,” he said on Monday evening in “PBS NewsHour”. “I think we should give serious thought to the possibility of requiring people to be tested before they come here from the UK.”

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic had agreed to require a negative coronavirus test result from passengers taking flights from the UK to New York. In the absence of federal action, other state and local administrators called for similar measures ahead of the main travel days.

Many countries already require a negative coronavirus test for entry, but cutting off all travel between nations is a tougher proposition.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has urged members of the bloc to lift blanket bans for Britain to allow essential travel to take place. But for now, nations seem to prefer to set their own rules.

Late on Tuesday, France gave in after a border closure announced on Sunday that left more than a thousand truck drivers stranded. Now it is said that select groups of people can cross the line if they have recently been tested for the virus.

The situation is rocking a travel industry already ravaged by the pandemic, forcing millions to change their vacation plans and get a new dose of fear at the end of a bleak year.

At the same time, a separate variant of the virus is cause for concern as it is spreading in South Africa. At least five nations – Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey – have excluded travelers from South Africa.

Sweden blocked travel from Denmark after reports that the British variant had been discovered there. And Saudi Arabia went further and suspended all international air travel to the kingdom for at least a week.

Updated

Apr. 23, 2020 at 8:46 am ET

The South African variant became the subject of intense scientific research after doctors found that people infected with it had an increased viral load – a higher concentration of the virus in their upper respiratory tract. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more severe symptoms.

Since it is not known how far the two variants will spread, it is impossible to assess what impact attempts to isolate the UK and South Africa will have on their containment.

With its elaborate genome monitoring efforts, the UK has sequenced around 150,000 coronavirus genomes to identify mutations. That’s roughly half the world’s genomic data on the virus, said Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium and professor of microbiology at Cambridge University.

“If you find something anywhere, you will probably find it here first,” said Professor Peacock. “If this happens in places where there is no sequencing, you won’t find it at all,” she added, unless they ran other tests that proved useful in identifying the variant.

In Wales, a country of three million people, geneticists have sequenced more coronavirus genomes in the last week than scientists studied during the entire pandemic in France, a country of 67 million, said Thomas Connor, a professor who is looking at University of Cardiff specializes in the variation of pathogens.

“It is likely that similar variants will appear around the world,” he said. “And there are variants that are likely to appear in other places that spread locally and that would be completely ignored because there is no sequencing.”

British officials said the first case of the now-widespread variant in the country was discovered on September 20 in Kent, southeast England. By November, around a quarter of the cases in London – an international trade center – concerned the new variant. Just a few weeks later, the variant was estimated to be responsible for nearly two-thirds of the cases in the Greater London area.

That said, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson reached out to the nation on Saturday night to announce tough new lockdown measures on millions of people in and around London, the variant had been spreading for months.

Officials in France and Germany admitted Tuesday that the variant may already be in circulation in their countries. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said some cases with the new variant had been discovered in Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands. And health officials in Australia and Italy have reported cases in travelers from the UK.

Those in support of the travel bans said they could play a role in keeping cases of new variant down.

“Numbers are important,” wrote Emma Hodcroft, researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland, on Twitter. “The number of people with the new variant in continental Europe is likely still small: through testing, tracking, identification and restrictions we may be able to prevent them from passing the virus on.”

If the variant turns out to be significantly more contagious than others in circulation and if it spreads more widely, it could complicate vaccination efforts around the world.

Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech, who worked with Pfizer to develop the first western-approved vaccine to fight the coronavirus, warned that it would be two weeks before the full results of the laboratory studies would allow a more complete understanding of how the mutations would determine the effectiveness of the The vaccine.

“We believe there is nothing to worry about until we get the data,” he said.

If a customized vaccine was needed, it could be ready within six weeks, said Dr. Sahin on Tuesday at a press conference. However, it would require additional regulatory approval, which could increase the waiting time, he said.

He also said that a more efficient virus would make it more difficult to achieve the levels of immunity necessary to end the pandemic.

“If the virus becomes more efficient at infecting people,” he said, “it might even require a higher vaccination rate to ensure normal life can continue uninterrupted.”

Melissa Eddy contributed to the reporting from Berlin and Benjamin Mueller from London.

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