Experts are skeptical that travel bans could stop the spread of new coronavirus variants

LONDON – As nation after nation rushed to close its borders with Britain this week, the movements brought back memories of how the world reacted after the coronavirus first appeared in the spring. Most of these initial travel bans came too late, implemented after the virus had already spread to communities everywhere.

a group of people sitting in the rain: the closed port of Dover, England, on Monday, as many European nations blocked arrivals in the UK due to a variant of coronavirus there.

© Andrew Testa for The New York Times
The port closed in Dover, England, on Monday, as many European nations blocked arrivals in the UK due to a coronavirus variant there.

a large passenger plane perched over a runway: a British Airways flight arriving in London from New York on Monday.

© Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
A British Airways flight arriving in New York from London on Monday.

This time, with countries trying to stop the spread of a new, possibly more contagious variant of the coronavirus identified by the UK, it could also be too late. It is not known how widespread the variant circulates, experts say, and the bans threaten to cause more economic and emotional difficulties as the number of charges caused by the virus continues to increase.

a group of people sitting in a room: at Kennedy International Airport in New York in March.  The global spread of coronavirus has paralyzed air travel, diminishing airport traffic.

© Stephanie Keith for The New York Times
At Kennedy International Airport in New York in March. The global spread of coronavirus has paralyzed air travel, diminishing airport traffic.

“He’s an idiot” was the direct assessment of Dr. Peter Kremsner, director of Tübingen University Hospital in Germany. “If this mutant was only on the island, only then does it make sense to close the borders with England, Scotland and Wales. But if it has spread, then we must fight the new mutant everywhere. “

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

Britain also has some of the most sophisticated genomic surveillance efforts in the world, which have allowed scientists there to discover the variant when it could have gone unnoticed elsewhere, experts said.

Dr Hans Kluge, the regional director of the World Health Organization for Europe, said Member States would try to come up with a coherent approach to any threat posed by the variant. At this point, he wrote on Twitter, “Restricting travel to contain the spread is prudent until we have better information.”

a group of people on a city street: Oxford Street, one of the main shopping streets in London, last week.

© Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Oxford Street, one of London’s main shopping streets, last week.

However, he noted that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

With growing calls for the United States to join dozens of nations banning travel bans in the UK, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease expert, called for caution, saying there are chances great that the variant is already there.

“I don’t think such a draconian approach is necessary,” he told PBS NewsHour on Monday night. “I think we should seriously consider asking people to be tested before coming here from the UK.”

a man and a woman standing in front of a curtain: a doctor who received the Pfizer vaccine at the Cardiff and Vale Therapy Center in Wales this month.

© Andrew Testa for The New York Times
A doctor who received the Pfizer vaccine at the Cardiff and Vale Therapy Center in Wales this month.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic had agreed to request a negative coronavirus test from passengers boarding flights from the UK to New York. In the absence of federal action, other state and local leaders have called for similar measures before peak holiday travel days.

Many countries already require a negative coronavirus test for entry, but stopping all travel between nations is a more difficult proposition.

The European Commission, the executive power of the European Union, urged members of the bloc to lift general bans on travel in Britain, but for now, nations seemed to prefer to set their own rules.

The situation is convincing a tourism industry already affected by the pandemic, forcing millions to change their holiday plans and injecting a new dose of anxiety at the end of a gloomy year.

At the same time, a separate variant of the virus is causing concern as it spreads to South Africa. At least five nations – Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey – have banned travelers from South Africa.

Sweden has blocked travel to Denmark after reports that the British version was detected there. And Saudi Arabia has gone even further, suspending all international air travel in the kingdom for at least a week.

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

As it is not known how widespread the two variants are, it is impossible to assess what effects the attempts to isolate Great Britain and South Africa will have on their content.

With its sophisticated genomic surveillance efforts, the United Kingdom has sequenced approximately 150,000 coronavirus genomes in an effort to identify mutations. That’s about half of the world’s genomic data on the virus, said Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium and a professor of microbiology at Cambridge University.

“If you find something anywhere, you’ll probably find it here first,” said Professor Peacock. “If this happens in places that do not have sequencing, you will not find it at all,” she added, unless they performed 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 past week than scientists have examined during the entire pandemic in France, a country of 67 million, said Thomas Connor, a professor specializing in the variation of pathogens at Cardiff University.

“Similar variants are likely to appear around the world,” he said. “And there are variants that are likely to appear elsewhere, that are spreading locally and that would be completely disregarded because there are no sequencers in place.”

British officials said the first case of the variant now spreading in the country was detected in Kent, in the south-east of England, on 20 September. By November, about a quarter of cases in London – an international trade center – involved the new option. Just a few weeks later, the variant is estimated to be responsible for almost two-thirds of cases in Greater London.

That means that until Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Saturday night to announce new severe blockade measures for millions of people in and around London, the rumor had been circulating for months.

Officials in France and Germany acknowledged on Tuesday that the variant could already be circulating in their countries. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said several cases with the new variant had been detected in Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands. Health officials in Australia and Italy have also reported cases to travelers in the UK.

Proponents of travel bans have said they could play a role in keeping new smaller cases.

“Numbers matter”, Emma Hodcroft, a researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland, wrote on Twitter. “The number of people with the new variant in continental Europe is probably still small: with testing, tracking, identification and restrictions, we could be able to prevent them from transmitting the virus.”

If the variant proves to be significantly more contagious than others in circulation and becomes more widespread, it could complicate overall vaccination efforts.

Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech, which together with Pfizer has developed the first vaccine approved in the West to fight coronavirus, warned that it would be two weeks before the full results of laboratory studies would allow a better understanding of which mutations could alter the effectiveness of the vaccine.

“We think there is no reason to worry until we get the data,” he said.

If an adapted vaccine were needed, it could be ready in six weeks, Dr. Sahin said at a news conference on Tuesday. But it would require additional approval from regulators, which could increase the waiting time, he said.

He also said that a more effective virus will make it more difficult to reach the levels of immunity needed to end the pandemic.

“If the virus becomes more effective in infecting people,” he said, “an even higher vaccination rate may be needed to ensure that normal life can go on without interruption.”

Melissa Eddy contributed to reports in Berlin and Benjamin Mueller in London.

Continue reading