U.S. Adds South Africa Travel Ban Amidst Fears Covid-19 Mutuation Could Evade Vaccines

In addition to reversing the Trump administration’s decision to lift bans on travel to the U.S. by non-residents who have been to Brazil or Europe in the past 14 days, the Biden administration will add South Africa to the list of banned countries.

Right now the South African variant of Covid-19 is most concerning, but this new policy will not stop it from entering the U.S.

President Joe Biden will impose a ban on most non-U.S. citizens entering the country who have recently been in South Africa starting Saturday in a bid to contain the spread of a new variant of COVID-19, a senior U.S. public health official told Reuters.

…“We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, in an interview Sunday.

Viruses mutate. On average they usually become easier to spread and less deadly. Viruses that kill their hosts quickly don’t survive as well, and those that last inside of hosts a long time are better able to mutate.

During the course of the pandemic the SARS-CoV-2 virus has remained surprisingly stable, although the earlier D to G mutation in Europe that became dominant in the U.S. was an early change that made the virus more infectious.

Recently there have been several mutations which have caused significant concern. The U.K. B.1.1.7 variant raised alarms because it spread more quickly and became dominant in several countries. It’s in the U.S., perhaps 1% of cases but we don’t really know, and could become dominant in a couple of months.

That’s concerning for four reasons,

  1. more spread means more overloaded hospitals

  2. more spread means more deaths

  3. more virus in the community means greater opportunity for further mutations

  4. a higher reproduction rate means more people need to be infected or vaccinated to reach herd immunity

The U.K. strain isn’t the only mutation and may not be the most concerning one. Right now I’m most worried about the South African “501Y.V2” mutation. It’s named for the N501Y mutation in the spike protein. The South African and U.K. strains both share this same mutation, but this variant also contains two other changes to the spike protein that aren’t in the U.K. B.1.1.7 strain.

Since vaccines target the spike protein, changes in that protein could mitigate vaccine effectiveness. And we’ve already seen reports that the South African variant:

  • isn’t responsive to antibody treatments derived from earlier versions of the virus

  • could lead to re-infection (for the same reason it evades vaccines, it evades the body’s immune response to earlier variants)

We don’t know if the South African strain is in the U.S. – but that’s because the U.S. does very little genomic surveillance, there simply isn’t a lot of testing of samples to know what mutations may be present here. In late 2020 the U.S. was sequencing an average of less than 500 samples per day or less than 1/3rd of 1% of positive tests. And the CDC goal is merely to get up to around double that.

However even if it’s not, or cases here don’t become widespread or dominant, this new ban isn’t going to keep it out.

  • The South African strain is no longer just in South Africa. It’s even in the U.K.. So saying ‘no travel from people that have been in South Africa’ doesn’t stop the South African strain from coming. That’s like saying Covid-19 can no longer enter the U.S. because it originated in China and we’ve banned travelers who have recently been to China.

  • This doesn’t stop Americans from traveling to South Africa and back, or from stopping U.S. residents currently abroad from entering the U.S. if they’ve been to South Africa. And there are various other categories of people exempt from the ban. So many of the people who would have traveled from South Africa to the U.S. will still do so.

We don’t yet know that these new variants are more dangerous (there’s some evidence the new U.K. strain is more lethal although this is not yet clear). We don’t know for certain that any reduce vaccine effectiveness – yet. And there’s reason for optimism that mRNA vaccines at least (like those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) could adapt within a couple of months to changes in the virus.

However we need to crush the pandemic quickly because the virus has more of an opportunity to mutate further. If we can reduce the amount of virus in the community, we reduce the chance the virus mutates, in a virtuous cycle that helps end the pandemic. That’s why we need more doses of vaccines in arms quickly, and those $1.16 N95 masks can’t hurt.

(HT: One Mile at a Time)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Do you know what is the current situation on the Europe travel ban? Trump signed the order lifting it with effect on Jan 26 12:01 AM. Biden stated that he would reinstate de ban, but at this point he haven’t done so. This means that at the moment if nothing changes Europeans can enter the US on January 26th?

  2. Biden’s appointees to his cabinet are ethnically diverse while Trump had one African American and 0 latinos. So now which regime is racist again?

  3. It appears as most flights to/from HKG got cancelled. Guess the 14 days quarantine for the crew is now a rule.

  4. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will almost certainly offer protection against severe illness or death from any of the current mutations. The real concern is that a vaccinated individual may become an asymptomatic carrier, allowing the stow away mutation to spread unchecked and unsuspected.

  5. Seems like a strong argument for more strongly enforced quarantine on returning US citizens, such as putting them into government facilities instead of just trusting people to stay at home. Unfortunately some of the people who decide to travel for non-essential reasons in the middle of a pandemic are the very type of people who refuse to quarantine and complain about wearing a mask. We can’t have covidiots putting the entire country at risk when it comes to these variants. A variant of this virus that the vaccine will not stop would be simply devastating for the US and its time to take real action to stop it.

  6. Apparently, the Science now says that non-US citizens are more infectious.
    This must be why on Monday Mr. B. “will reinstate the Covid-19 travel restrictions on non-US citizens who have been in Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, a White House official confirmed to CNN”.
    This was guided by Science and not politics. Now Covid-19 will be defeated once and for all.

  7. NFO, the racist regime is the one which considers the color of someone’s skin rather than ignoring it and picking the best person regardless of their race.

  8. This very much seems like the Trump move to cancel China flights, if the virus spread to other countries banning the original location doesn’t help

  9. This administration is proving who they prefer. Ban all legal immigrants while opening the southern borders so illegals can flood the country.

  10. For anyone who is seriously interested in the subject rather than just name calling, here’s a good National Geographic article on diseases and immunization (with some rough pictures of people with smallpox): https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2020/08/how-devastating-pandemics-change-us-feature/

    And another on Covid’s future (likely permanent): https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2021/01/covid-19-will-likely-be-with-us-forever-heres-how-well-live-with-it/

  11. @FlyingBoat
    The racist regime is the one that calls neonazis and white supremacists “very fine people”.

  12. Come on man, it looks like The New Messiah ended Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and replaced it with his own “African Ban.” According to protestors in Portland this week, which The New Messiah has not admonished, “…both (political) parties are the oppressor…” and the demonstrators vandalized a federal building and the Democratic Party state headquarters. So is The New Messiah going to call the Portland rioters and BLM activists “very fine people” now?

  13. @drrichard

    Thanks for the National Geographic links. It’s refreshing and very good to read something that is not all about talking points of lies fueled by divisive politics. Highly recommend these articles to anyone reading these comments as a great use of 15 minutes of time.

  14. So Plugs says nothing can be done to change the trajectory of the pandemic over the the next several months, yet they are putting new restrictions in place, a lot of which are going to further hurt the travel industry. C’mon man which is it? What a bunch of malarkey.

  15. Quite interesting that the usual suspect commenters, who were totally cool with 4 years of pretty terrible presidenting, are now expecting insta-results after the new guy in charge has had two (2) full days in office and are b!tching and moaning about every little thing. Sad!

  16. The National Geographic is good about telling the truth that rapidly mutating RNA viruses like Sar-Cov-2 will stay with us for a long long time if not forever. The only thing they should also mention, that by imposing quarantines and masks we are artificially selecting more infectious viruses. It is like killing weeds with herbicides. If you weed survives, it will propagate (or jump to another field = host for a virus). This was brought to the attention earlier in spring (when WSJ published a study that there were no effects on Covid-19 spread upon masks mandates) but wearing masks became a political issue. Now we do have reports of more infectious strains from places with masks-obeying Europe.
    The same thing will happen with vaccines. The spreading of current variants will be greatly suppressed and the only mutants spreading will be those vaccine – resistant. But who will tell you about this? Only time will..

  17. Biden is just Trump 2.0, same program with a more friendly interface. Xenophobic travel bans all the way down. Separating families, preventing human fulfillment, same as it ever was . . . but with a smiling old man instead of a scowling one.

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