Fauci: Maybe we'll ban travel from South Africa eventually if the data on the new variant looks bad; Update: U.S. bans travel from eight countries

Hey, I’ve got an idea.

How about we ban travel from South Africa and its neighbors immediately, out of an abundance of caution, as the UK has already wisely done and un-ban it in two weeks if the data shows the new variant to be a false alarm?

I remember the early days of the pandemic when the virus was already beginning to eat Europe alive. Trump finally banned travel from the continent in mid-March, prompting eye-rolling from public health experts. You’re too late, they insisted. It does no good to ban travel once a virus has already hopped to multiple continents since, by that point, it’s surely already arrived in the U.S. The time for a travel ban is when only a few cases have been detected abroad, before the spread has gone international. Even Fauci took that position initially before grudgingly coming around to supporting Trump’s European travel restrictions.

Only a few cases of the B.1.1.529 “Nu” variant have been detected so far. By the logic of March 2020, that should make this an opportune moment to slap a travel ban on southern Africa. We might not be able to stop Nu from reaching the U.S. but we can limit the number of travelers bringing it in, slowing the spread. And the slower the spread is, the fewer people will be infected while the country waits for Pfizer and Moderna to produce an updated vaccine, if need be.

So what is this guy talking about?

Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN Friday “we’re rushing now to get that scientific data to try and make an informed decision” on a possible travel ban.

“If, in fact, it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing. There’s always the possibility of doing what the U.K. has done, namely, block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said.

“You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

According to BioNTech, which developed Pfizer’s vaccine, it’ll be two weeks until they have the data they need to know how transmissible, virulent, and vaccine-evasive Nu is. Thousands of people from southern Africa could enter the U.S. during that period, seeding outbreaks across the country. “By the time we have that data it will already be here,” tweeted Aaron Sibarium of the new variant, adding, “Once it’s here, of course, Fauci will not demand ‘more data’ before recommending we cancel Christmas.”

The public-health bureaucracy has been criticized stridently, and often justifiably, for hyper-caution in its approach to COVID. Suddenly we have a new variant of the virus with the largest number of mutations yet detected by science and Fauci seems ambivalent about banning travel to try to keep it out. I’m baffled.

But maybe it’s already too late?

Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.

“We have one case of this variant that is confirmed. It’s someone who came from abroad,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “It’s a suspicious variant. We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it has also detected the country’s first case of the new variant, in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

Ominously, the case in Belgium involved a woman who hadn’t traveled recently to southern Africa. She’d come from Egypt, via Turkey. Maybe the variant is already loose in northern Africa too.

Two cases have also been detected in Hong Kong. One came from South Africa, the other didn’t:

Presumably the Canadian traveler was infected inside the hotel, during quarantine, by the South African traveler. A top official at the WHO warned that “it’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses” and “it’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused” but Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Malta and the Czech Republic have already imposed travel bans on southern Africa and the EU has called for extending the ban continent-wide. If in fact the variant has infected only handfuls of people so far outside Africa, that ban might meaningfully slow the spread.

So why is Fauci following the WHO’s lead instead of Europe’s?

Ideally African countries where the variant has been detected would ban international travel by their own residents temporarily, to try to contain this potential forest fire at the source, but nations aren’t normally in the habit of doing the rest of the world a solid at the expense of their own citizens. Maybe they’d be amenable to a deal in which, in return for a travel ban, western countries will begin immediate emergency shipments of all available surplus vaccines to South Africa and its neighbors in hopes of containing the variant. Although, really, there’s no “deal” to be had there: We should start those shipments ASAP regardless, both as a humanitarian matter and a matter of self-interest. The more quickly Africans can be immunized, the more trouble Nu will have going global.

Update: Biden has more sense than Fauci in this case, probably because it’s Biden rather than Fauci who’d have to live with the political consequences if the new variant ends up exploding here after he failed to move swiftly to ban travel.