The U.S. just re-opened travel to vaccinated visitors, after a non-sensical policy of limiting entry by those had been in some high profile spread countries while welcoming others from some of the worst affected countries in the world.
Now, in the face of the new Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa, the U.S. is banning travel from South Africa along with Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.
- This only applies to non-citizens (U.S. citizens can’t spread the new variant?)
- And it doesn’t start until Monday (we’ve asked the virus to wait before spreading because of the holiday weekend)
The variant had widely been expected to be called Nu, the next letter in the Greek alphabet, but the World Health Organization skipped over Nu and, it appears, also Xi in naming this variant Omicron.
Numerous nations have banned travel from the region already including the U.K. and Europe. Cases have been identified in Hong Kong, Belgium, and Israel. The woman who tested positive for the new variant in Belgium had no connection to South Africa. Her symptom onset came 11 days after travel in the Mideast.
A travel ban shows that politicians are ‘doing something’ but doesn’t stop the virus, outside of isolated island nations.
- The virus variant is already spreading in communities, and isn’t limited to South Africa
- People travel from South Africa to places where there are no travel banes before entering the U.S.
- The U.S. ban applies only to land border crossings
We do not know yet whether this new variant will become dominant, or the extent to which it escapes immune protection. It’s troubling because how much it has mutated (32 mutations in the spike protein) leading to the possibility of immune escape (the spike protein looks different than what we’ve developed antibodies against from vaccination or prior infection) and because it appears to be up to 500% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain (by contrast, Delta is considered ~ 70% more transmissible). At least based on some early indications, we’ll soon know more:
Five quick tweets on the new variant B.1.1.529
Caveat first: data here is *very* preliminary, so everything could change. Nonetheless, better safe than sorry.
1) Based on the data we have, this variant is out-competing others *far* faster than Beta and even Delta did 🚩🚩 pic.twitter.com/R2Ac4e4N6s
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) November 25, 2021
As long as the virus is spreading broadly, it will continue to mutate. And, it seems, it has a greater range in which it can mutate while still remaining infectious to humans than many had previously thought. Similar mutations appear to occur around the world. Stopping people from one place entering the country won’t protect us.
This variant is ultimately either more fit or it isn’t. As of this writing betting markets have the chance of Omicron becoming more than 1% of U.S. cases by the New Year at less than 50% though that could easily change and change quickly.
Pfizer’s Paxlovid should remain highly effective against it, since it isn’t targeting the spike protein. We need that approved now. We also need the cheap paper strip tests at around a buck or two apiece that I was writing about over a year ago, that much of Europe has finally gotten. That way you know if you’ve got Covid quickly and can take an effective antiviral (Paxlovid works best within 3 days of symptom onset) not to mention isolating when you’re infectious.
We’ve had terrible messaging on boosters, and as a result very low uptake, while tens of millions of vaccine doses expire in the U.S. (boosters aren’t the reason world vaccine supply remains constrained).
Science has given us the tools to address and manage this, we need to finally start treating this as a pandemic and get out of the way. Travel bans are window dressing, not serious policy at this point.