A lot has been made of the Biden administration’s move to ban non-US travelers from South Africa to the United States and to extend the ban on travelers from Brazil and twenty-eight countries in Europe. The move is an attempt to limit the spread of new, fast-moving variants of SARS-CoV-2, which are much more contagious and may be more deadly than the most dominant variant in the US today. But these efforts do little to solve our problem and are likely to prove as ineffective as our initial ban on travelers from China in stopping the early spread of Covid-19.
Many have expressed worry over the South African variant in particular, which is estimated to be up to 50% more contagious than current variants and more effective at resisting neutralizing antibodies generated by vaccines or previous infection. A ban on travelers from South Africa does little to stop the virus from arriving on our shores. The variant has already been found in more than 20 countries, including our closest neighbor to the North where it has been circulating for nearly a month.
What we need instead are restrictions on all travelers, no matter their citizenship or country of origin. Every person arriving in the US should be required to test negative twice for Covid-19 at maximum 36 hours before their travel begins. The first test should be a PCR test, which can show whether a person has an active infection. The second should be an IgM antibody test, which can show whether a person was recently infected and may still be contagious. Some travelers who were recently vaccinated may have a negative PCR test result but a positive antibody test due to the vaccine and not a recent infection. In these cases, an additional antibody test directed at proteins not targeted by the current vaccines would be required.
Upon arrival in the US, all travelers should be tested again with a rapid antigen test or PCR test. We know already that these tests miss cases anywhere from 20% to 100% of the time, depending on when during the course of an infection they’re administered. This means that even if a traveler tests negative before travel and upon arrival, they should still be required to isolate themselves for a minimum of two weeks in a controlled facility. We’re not talking about vague promises to head directly home and stay there, we’re talking about supervised isolation where temperatures are monitored, tests are administered, and those who fall ill are treated and cared for without risking the further spread of disease.
I know these restrictions may seem severe and they place yet another burden on a nation already carrying a heavy weight that only grows larger with every new death, every job lost, and every day we are confined to our homes, alone. But these restrictions are necessary if we are to prevent things from becoming much, much worse.
Other countries — Australia, China, New Zealand and Taiwan to name just a few — have followed this approach and have proven themselves successful against the spread of disease and the new variants. Indeed, some places have even more stringent restrictions. Hong Kong, for example, requires three weeks of quarantine in a controlled facility with follow up tests. Mainland China requires the same three week quarantine period, though the last week can, for now, be served at home. While these restrictions haven’t prevented travelers from carrying the variants into the country, they have prevented the variants from spreading and becoming the new dominant strain.
We should not only impose these restrictions on travelers to our country, we should hope that all countries impose these same restrictions on American travelers heading abroad. The US is home to the largest Covid-19 outbreak in the world. We are almost certainly generating our own variants, that may be more contagious and more deadly than any that have been identified to date. Worse, we aren’t doing the necessary sequencing to identify these variants or warn others of their spread. This means that we are as much of a threat, if not more, than any other country today.
With these new variants, the virus has shown us that it can adapt to escape some of our best defenses. Now we must adapt in turn. No more compromise, no half measures, just strong and decisive action to avert what looks to be a growing disaster.