30 November 2021 (Geneva, Switzerland) – In view of the imposition of travel bans on southern African countries in a bid to prevent the spread of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant, IAS – the International AIDS Society – calls for an international Code of Conduct for countries compelled to react to emerging COVID-19 information. The Code of Conduct would focus on scientific evidence rather than resorting to blunt measures that may cause more harm than good.
Very targeted and time-bound travel bans can be helpful early on when a variant is still entirely contained and if countries imposing such measures utilize the time it may buy for adequate measures. These include driving up testing, vaccinations and effective isolation and quarantine strategies.
The variant has been detected in many countries and, it appears, cannot be contained through a travel ban targeting a handful of countries. This renders these measures ineffective and potentially counterproductive.
“Based on current information and data, the travel ban has all the writings of a political posturing that responds to domestic political pressures rather than truly addressing the challenge at hand,” IAS President Adeeba Kamarulzaman said. “What’s worse, this reaction may potentially lead to countries withholding crucial information, such as the discovery of new variants for fear of being ostracized and punished.”
The IAS fears that the imposition of selective, unscientific travel bans could lead to underreporting of new variants and stigmatize those who are hardest hit already, for no fault of their own.
That’s why an international consensus on dealing responsibly with new information such as the discovery of new variants is urgently needed.
“We need an international Code of Conduct that guides countries in sharing information on emerging variants of COVID-19 and that also provides a clear list of to-dos and not-to-dos for other countries in reacting to such information,” IAS President-Elect Sharon Lewin said.
The IAS is also concerned by reports linking Omicron with people living with HIV. “These reports could further exacerbate stigma, which continues to be the Achilles heel of the HIV response and has been hampering concerted efforts in fighting COVID-19, as well,” IAS Executive Board member Linda-Gail Bekker said.
The grossly inequitable roll out of vaccines is fuelling the emergence of new variants and can only be addressed if people and governments join together in solidarity and support those in need. COVID-19 vaccine inequity is most acute in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV is most prevalent. Every day, six times more boosters are administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries.
“A more measured reaction to the situation at hand would have been to instate quarantine for people travelling from countries where Omicron has been identified while stepping up vaccination everywhere, and social distancing in the Northern hemisphere as winter approaches,” IAS Executive Board member Kenneth Ngure said.
The message is clear: rather than focusing on blunt instruments, countries should be guided by science and agree on a Code of Conduct that ensures that no country is singled out and unfairly punished.
Director, IAS Communications and Public Affairs