With the finding of the new "variant of concern," B.1.1.529, named Omicron by the WHO, we see the latest act of security theater being played out. The US quickly enacted a travel ban against South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. However, the ban does not apply to US citizens and lawful US permanent residents — as if they are immune to the variant?
We should have learned by now that travel bans don't prevent the spread of COVID or airborne infections. Furthermore, the virus was detected from a sample collected on November 9 and identified on November 22. WHO was notified on November 24. We are far too interconnected, and by the time variants are identified, the cat is out of the bag. Dr Kizmekkia Corbett, the scientific lead at NIH's Vaccine Research Center on the coronavirus, who helped develop the Moderna vaccine (aka "the people's vaccine" because it was taxpayer-funded), had this to say about the travel ban:
Tulio de Oliveira, PhD, director of South Africa's CERI: Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, explained on Twitter that South Africa has "been very transparent with scientific information. We identified, made data public, and raised the alarm as the infections are just increasing. We did this to protect our country and the world in spite of potentially suffering massive discrimination." He urged support, stating, "Our poor and deprived population cannot be in lockdown without financial support...The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it!"
On the one hand, people have been critical of China for not being transparent about the origins of COVID and how it spread so quickly throughout China.
Now, we have South Africa doing better virology and sequencing than most other countries and, having quickly identified a new variant, being punished for being honest and proactive in protecting others.
What kind of misguided message does this send? What happens when a country that is not an ally discovers a variant? They will likely hide it, trying to protect themselves from punitive actions. Who wouldn't, faced with tremendous financial repercussions on the country?
Two other aspects of this ban are concerning. First, there is thinly veiled racism. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, MD, MPH, director of the St. Louis Department of Health, commented:
Others asked, "[W]hy no travel ban for Hong Kong, Belgium or Israel where the same variant have [sic] emerged independently from South Africa?"
The other glaring issue is the lack of vaccine equity. There are more than 3 billion people who have yet to receive their first dose of vaccine.
The US and other wealthy countries have hoarded vaccines and thrown out millions of doses. Only 18% of 785 million donated doses had been delivered by September; the target had been 2 billion by the end of this year. Instead, we are on track to be wasting 1.2 billion extra doses during that time.
Most African countries lack access to vaccines. But vaccine misinformation plays a huge role in the low uptake in some countries like South Africa, where currently there is no shortage of doses. According to Business Tech, "A survey found last month that about 54% of nationals say they are unlikely to get a Covid-19 vaccine and almost half say they believe prayer provides more protection than the shots." Vaccine mistrust is far more significant in men than women.
While only 37% of South Africans are vaccinated, the uptake in my county (Allegany County, Maryland) was only 46% last time I looked — for much the same reasons, with more conspiracy theories thrown in.
To boost vaccine coverage, we need the wealthy countries to support and work towards vaccine equity — by building production facilities in Africa and by sharing technologies, particularly those developed with public funding and by NIH researchers. Voluntarily donating enough vaccine supplies has failed. I would certainly support a waiver of patent protection under these circumstances. Until we vaccinate most of the globe, mutations will continue to emerge, and we will just be chasing our tails, watching as millions die.
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She survived 25 years in solo practice in rural Cumberland, Maryland, and now works part-time. She especially loves writing about ethical issues and advocating for social justice. Follow her at drjudystone.com or on Twitter @drjudystone.
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Cite this: Judy Stone. Travel Bans: The Latest Security Theater - Medscape - Dec 03, 2021.