WASHINGTON – U.S. health officials say they do not yet see a need to halt flights from the United Kingdom, even as a growing number of other countries ban British travelers amid the rapid spread of a new variant of coronavirus in London and elsewhere.
Political leaders in New York have called on the Trump administration to halt flights from the U.K. to the U.S. in an effort to limit or block the new variant from spreading here.
Canada and dozens of other counties announced new restrictions on U.K. travelers after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the coronavirus variant could be 70% more transmissible and is driving an alarmingly rapid spread of infections in London and surrounding areas.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said Monday that while preliminary analysis in the U.K. suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible,” there is no indication that infections are more severe. Experts have warned, however, that even if the variant is not more lethal, it will likely lead to an increase in infections, hospitalizations and virus-related deaths.
Cuomo: ‘Another disaster waiting to happen’
“That variant is getting on a plane and landing in JFK, and all it takes is one person,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Sunday. He called on the Trump administration to ban flights from the U.K. or, failing that, for airlines to test passengers before they fly from the U.K. to New York.
Cuomo said Monday that British Airways had agreed to require passengers on flights from the U.K. to New York to produce a negative coronavirus test before departure. In a tweet, he said New York was working with two other air carriers, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, to do the same.
“This is another disaster waiting to happen,” he said at a briefing Monday.
Fauci: ‘Follow it … don’t overreact’
But President Donald Trump’s assistant secretary for health, Admiral Brett Giroir, said the CDC has not made any recommendation to limit travel from the U.K. to the United States. In an interview Monday with CNN, Giroir said he spoke with CDC Director Robert Redfield on Sunday evening about the matter.
“There was not a (CDC) recommendation for that,” Giroir said, although he said U.S. officials would monitor the situation and could change course if warranted.
“Every hour we get more information,” he said. “So I think everything is possible. We just need to put everything on the table, have an open scientific discussion and make a best recommendation.”
The White House Coronavirus Task Force is meeting at 2 p.m. on Monday, and the issue could come up for discussion then. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would oppose new travel restrictions based on current information about the new coronavirus variant.
The U.S. must “without a doubt keep an eye on it,” Fauci told CNN on Monday.
“Follow it carefully, but don’t overreact to it,” he said.
Dr. Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said travel bans need to be carefully considered because they can cause fear and disruption. Such restrictions can buy time, he said, but may not always be effective. He noted, for example, that Trump’s oft-cited ban on travel from China occurred after the virus was already circulating in the U.S.
But British officials said they understand the reaction to the new coronavirus variant circulating there.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the virus variant is “out of control” around London and southeastern England.
Canada, India, France, Germany, Italy and Poland are among the countries that have banned flights from Britain. Eurotunnel, the rail service that links Britain with mainland Europe, also has suspended service.
Germany said all flights coming from Britain, except cargo flights, were no longer allowed to land starting at midnight Sunday. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also moved to ban all flights from the U.K. starting at midnight Sunday. He said travelers who arrived Sunday would be subject to secondary screening and other health measures.
Giroir noted that viruses mutate all the time, and there’s no indication this new coronavirus variant is more deadly.
“So I don’t think there should be any reason for alarm right now,” he said Sunday. “We continue to watch. … But again, viruses mutate, over 4,000 mutations that we’ve seen so far in this virus, and it’s still acting essentially like COVID-19. And the vaccines should continue to work very robustly against all of these strains.”
Who controls travel?
Travel from the U.K. to the United States is already much lower than normal because Trump issued a series of presidential proclamations early in the coronavirus pandemic to ban non-U.S. citizens from certain countries from entering the United States.
The CDC and the State Department can advise Americans against traveling to certain countries based on health threats or other concerns such as crime and terrorism. The CDC currently advises against any travel to the U.K. because of the pandemic.
Trump has used his presidential authority to restrict travel into the U.S., most notably from China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged late last year. On Jan. 31, Trump issued a presidential proclamation limiting travel from China, and he repeatedly touted that as a major success in limiting infections in the U.S.
Trump also banned travelers from the European Schengen Area, a group of 26 European countries that allows open travel across their borders, beginning March 13. Three days later, visitors from the U.K. and Ireland were prohibited. There was speculation as late as last week that the U.K. ban could soon be lifted.
Contributing: Julia Thompson and Nicholas Penzenstadler, USA TODAY; The Associated Press