The White House is still considering lifting travel restrictions on Brazil- and much of Europe – despite the discovery of a new mutant strain of COVID-19 that has fueled a surge in cases in the South American country.
US officials this week revealed the Trump administration is continuing talks to rescind entry bans on most non-US citizens imposed in the beginning of the pandemic, in the final days before the president leaves office.
The move would roll back an order signed by Trump in May barring foreigners from entering the United States if they have been within most of Europe or Brazil within the last 14 days.
The plan had been backed by public health officials in November, as well as airlines which had hoped new testing requirements would clear the way for the administration to lift the restrictions that reduced travel.
But the potential rolling back of such measures comes as a third and ‘more infectious’ variant of the coronavirus emerged in Brazil, prompting other countries, including the UK, to tighten their borders.
UK officials on Thursday announced they were banning all travelers fromSouth America, Panama and Cape Verde as well as Portugal in an effort to prevent the mutant strain from entering the country.
The White House is still considering lifting travel restrictions on Brazil and most of Europe in the final days before President Donald Trump leaves office, two officials briefed on the matter said Wednesday
The US, however, is yet to follow suit and continues to see daily flights to and from Brazil,including regular routes on American Airlines and United, with at least 40 flying in on Thursday.
The CDC and US embassies have recommended against any travel to Brazil which has a Level 4 Travel Advisory (Do Not Travel).
However, passengers flying in from Brazil can still enter the country if they are US nationals, permanent residents or Greencard holders.
Daily deaths in Brazil rose back over 1,000 per day this week, around the same level as during the country’s first wave last spring, after it had finally brought down the curves of infections and deaths last year.
The mutant strain was discovered in Tokyo, Japanlast week in four people who had arrived on a flight from South America.
Scientists have said that the strain has similarities to those of the highly contagious variants recently found in the UK and South Africa and fear it could potentially be resistant to newly developed vaccines.
No decision to lift the current entry ban has been made to date however, sources told Reuters Tuesday those plans are still in the works now that the emphasis has shifted to pre-departure testing on travelers.
Marty Cetron, director of CDC’s global migration and quarantine division, on Tuesday said the bans were an ‘opening act strategy’ to address the virus spread and should now be ‘actively reconsidered.’
‘This testing strategy is the pivot to something that is more comprehensive and more sensible in a lot of ways,’ Cetron said.
It comes as the CDC signed an order Tuesday requiring nearly all air travelers to present a negative coronavirus test or proof of recovery from COVID-19 to enter the US starting January 26.
Passengers line up for a COVID-19 Test at Guarulhos international airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Monday
Airlines had also been lobbying for the Trump administration to lift the restrictions that reduced travel from some European countries by 95 per cent or more.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT?
Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1
Date:Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.
Is it in the UK? Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of B.1.1.248, but this doesn’t rule it out completely.
Why should we care?The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa named N501Y which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.
What do the mutations do?
The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people’s bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious.
Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor.
Even if the virus doesn’t appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.
Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant.
E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.
However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.
Will our vaccines still protect us?
There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.
The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation.
Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.
They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.
And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines.
The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, praised the testing plan but encouraged the White House ‘to concurrently lift existing entry restrictions on travelers from Europe, the United Kingdom and Brazil.’
Many administration officials argued the restrictions no longer make sense given most countries are not subject to the entry bans.
Others argue the US should not drop entry bans since many European countries block most US citizens.
Brazil allows visitors to fly in for 90 days with no quarantine requirement.
However, tourists must provide evidence of a negative COVID test anda completed Declaration of Traveler’s Health (DSV) to the airline responsible for the flight, before boarding.
When returning to the US, Americans need to take another COVID test 1-3 days before the flight, which must be negative, and quarantine for seven days when they arrive, and take another test 3-5 days after landing.
So far, the US has been slow to act on implementing prevention measures against the new variants.
It only imposed testing requirements on UK travelers after the mutant strain was already detected in the states and so far has failed to do the same on people traveling from South Africa.
But some experts believe the government is unlikely to crack down.
Former FDA associate commissioner Peter Pitts said that while tightening US border restrictions may help, it won’t necessarily do much to mitigate the inevitable spread of mutant virus strains, which are likely to continue emerging.
‘I don’t think a travel ban is going to solve the problem because viruses have a way of getting places that humans can’t always control and with the cat out of the bag, you’re heading in the wrong direction,’ Pitts told DailyMail.com last week.
Viruses by nature mutate in order to survive thus it is likely the US and other countries will see more mutations as the pandemic goes on, he explained.
Pitts said the proper course of action would be to impose testing requirements on international travelers instead.
On Wednesday, scientists in Ohio revealed the US now has its own homegrown ‘super-covid’ variants that are more infectious than the most common coronavirus types in the US – and the new variants are spreading like wildfire in at least one state.
One of the new, more infectious variants has already become dominant in Columbus, Ohio, where it was discovered. This unique US variant has three mutations not seen in the others from the UK and South Africa.
So far, this homegrown variant has been seen in about 20 samples since Ohio State University (OSU) scientists first detected it in December. It’s now present in most of the samples they are sequencing.
A second variant has mutations identical to the UK variant’s, but arose completely independently on American soil, according to Ohio State University scientists. Just one person with this variant has been found.
‘It has a variant backbone that is in common with the UK and South African variants,’ but is separate, said Dr Daniel Jones, one of the Ohio State University (OSU) scientists involved in the discovery of the variants.
‘We are now in a period where the virus is changing quite substantially…so we are concerned,’ at least over the transmissibility, said Dr Jones.
It comes after Dr Deborah Birx warned over the weekend that the patter of COVID-19 case spikes suggested the US could already have its own 50 percent more infectious ‘super-covid’ variant.
Scientists are quite sure both American variants are more infectious, but don’t know yet whether they will be immune to vaccines.The Columbus variant is not currently thought to be deadlier, but scientists are ramping up their search for cases of it to monitor how sick people who catch it get.
‘Super-covid’ variants are not yet dominant in the broader US, but three Americans died of COVID-19 every minute yesterday. The death toll spiked to a record high cases and hospitalizations continue to surge and hard-hit Los Angeles says children are apologizing to their dying relatives for spreading the virus.
The United States recorded a staggering 4,327 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to more than 380,000 – more than the past 10 flu seasons combined.