[COVIDWatch] Are travel bans and border restrictions effective in controlling the spread of new Covid-19 variants?

The Omicron (B.1.1.529) Covid variant, first reported in South Africa on 24 November 2021 was identified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) due to its large number of mutations as compared to other variants of the coronavirus. However, the WHO, as well as South Africa have urged other countries to not impose travel restrictions, stating that they are not necessary for halting the spread of the viruses. Nonetheless, many other countries, including Israel, Morocco, Singapore, and most recently Japan, have implemented travel restrictions as a means of controlling the spread of this new COVID-19 variant

Due to the recency of the variant, there is a lack of information on Omicron and the impact of travel bans on its transmissibility. Hence, we conducted research using pre-existing studies on the impact of travel bans in controlling Covid-19 outbreaks catalysed by new strains of the virus. We found that several research journals had conducted studies on the impact of travel-related measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the early phase of the outbreak. While travel restrictions vary across a spectrum, from full border closures to imposed quarantines and vaccinated travel lanes with varying levels of restrictiveness, current studies have shown mixed views on the efficacy off travel-ban restrictions in containing the spread of Covid-19. The follow screenshots, from the British Medical Journal on Global Health and BioMed Central respectively found different levels of efficacy with respect to the impacts of travel restrictions on limiting Covid-19 transmissions.

The effectiveness of travel bans hinge on timeliness and extensiveness of implementation, with travel bans being rendered ineffective once epidemics have become widespread. Narrowly-targeted measures were found to be ineffective as well, such as Wuhan-specific measures that were implemented at the start of the pandemic to curb transmissions from the epicenter of the virus. The current flight bans being discussed for Southern African countries in light of Omicron might not be as comprehensive as they should be in order to be optimally effective. It is thus recommended that countries should also begin to implement domestic public health containment measures alongside international travel measures.

While the studies we cited have expressed mixed reactions to the efficacy of travel bans and border restrictions on controlling infectious disease spread, they have all agreed on the increase in efficacy of these travel curbs when they are implemented early. Implementing travel bans along with other restrictions should theoretically be most effective at this stage to counter the spread of Omicron, while the variant is still emerging. While the impact of the Omicron variant in terms of its transmissibility and how effective the vaccine is against it remain to be seen, there is no definite consensus as of yet on whether flight bans will be an effective solution to prevent its spread.

As such, it is currently unproven that travel bans and border restrictions will be effective in controlling the spread of new Covid-19 variants. Based on pre-existing research however, if travel restrictions were to be implemented, the best time to introduce them would be in the early outbreak phase.

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