Biden’s travel ban on African nations over Omicron variant ‘counterproductive’, says Michael Osterholm, one of America’s most distinguished infectious disease experts who warned 800,000 people could die of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Asked by Peter Bergen, a CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University, whether President Biden's November 26 travel ban on South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Lesotho, and Eswatini, was helpful.

U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s travel ban on eight African nations over the Omicron variant is “counterproductive,” says Dr. Michael Osterholm, a Regents Professor who is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and author of The New York Times bestseller “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer germs.”

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan, Tuesday, August 31, 2021, in front of the Cross Hall of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan, Tuesday, August 31, 2021, in front of the Cross Hall of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Asked by Peter Bergen, a CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University, whether President Biden’s November 26 travel ban on South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Lesotho, and Eswatini, was helpful, Dr. Osterholm responded. “No. The new variant was all around the world in the month of November.”

He acknowledged that although the Omicron variant is said to be highly infectious, a travel ban “is something that nations might do initially just to lock things down while they understand what’s going on — it is not meant to be a long-term solution.”

“It’s like police at a crime scene,” he said. “They lock it down for several hours to gather information and then open it back up again. The political reaction of implementing a travel ban is not helpful in most cases. If it gives you 24 to 36 hours to at least get a lay of the land about what’s happening, then I think it can be useful. But if it persists after that, particularly when you have widespread transmission of the virus in other parts of the world already, it’s counterproductive.”

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., MPH, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis, MN  Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) (Photo by Chris Condayan) 
Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., MPH University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis, MN Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) (Photo by Chris Condayan)

Dr. Michael Osterholm, who estimated back in April 2020 that there could be 800,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States within 18 months, has joined a long list of health and medical experts who have asserted that the travel ban on only African nations when the Omicron variant was already in many parts of the world is not helpful.

His prediction on fatalities in the United States has become a reality, as more than 793,000 Americans have died from the disease in the past one year and a half.

“I based my estimates at the time on historic data from previous pandemics,” he told CNN. “What is troubling to me is our fascination with modeling. I think modeling, particularly when it’s erroneous, can be very detrimental. I’ve watched so many different estimates of case numbers from these models taken literally by policymakers and the public and particularly the media. The reality is you can’t model beyond 30 days out. Just look at what is happening right now. We can’t even predict why these surges occur or when they occur. Who, 30 days ago, could have developed a model that would accurately predict what we’re seeing right now with Omicron? Who could have predicted that?”

Late last month, Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and Dean of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, USA, had a clear message for G7 leaders: “Forget about the travel bans, let’s go vaccinate the African people.”

Dr. Hotez was reacting to the emergence and spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in southern Africa and the travel restrictions that many countries and regional bodies, including the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan and others, imposed on southern African nations.

Dr. Peter Hotez: Photo by Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer 
Dr. Peter Hotez: Photo by Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The World Health Organization (WHO) on November 26 designated the B.1.1.529 variant a ‘variant of concern’ and named it ‘Omicron’, after skipping two Greek letters ‘Nu’ and ‘Xi’ to avoid confusion and controversy.

The WHO said the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations and this could be an indication of how the variant would behave. It added that it was too early to know exactly how the new variant will behave and that studies were being carried out.

Dr. Hotez told CNN’s Jim Acosta that he solution was vaccinations, not travel bans, explaining that travel bans have not been very effective against COVID-19 which was first detected in China before spreading to the entire world.

Experts at the WHO have also said travel bans have not been helpful during this pandemic and called on countries to lift them.

But more than 70 countries, including the United States have maintained the bans on only African nations, including in countries where the variant has not even been detected.

World Health Organization Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove during a press briefing in Geneva on March 9, 2020. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images 
World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove gestures as she speaks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 9, 2020. – The World Health Organization said on March 9, 2020 that more than 70 percent of those infected with the new coronavirus in China have recovered, adding that the country was “bringing its epidemic under control”. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the travel bans on South Africa and other African nations, and the United States Nations Secretary General compared them to “apartheid.”

Yet, President Biden and the White House have continued to claim that the bans were necessary, asserting that they listened to the advice of their health and medical experts.

White House COVID Chief Medial Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci participates in a briefing Thursday 
White House COVID Chief Medial Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci participates in a briefing Thursday

Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci, President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, has acknowledged in several interviews that banning countries with no single cases of the new variant may not have been based on science. Yet, the travel ban has remained in place.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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