(CNSNews.com) – When a World Health Organization-convened committee of independent experts met at the end of January to decide whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak in China a global health emergency, it advised that travel restrictions “may be ineffective” but also acknowledged that they could have their place.
“[I]n certain specific circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with limited response capacities and capabilities, or where there is high intensity of transmission among vulnerable populations,” the emergency committee said in a statement on January 30.
That nuanced assessment, however, did not align precisely with the message WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom was emphasizing that same day.
“The WHO doesn’t recommend and actually opposes any restrictions for travel and trade or other measures against China,” he told a briefing in Geneva. “If anyone is thinking about taking measures, it’s going to be wrong.”
Sometime during the following few hours, the original committee statement on WHO’s website was altered, scrubbing the reference to circumstances under which travel restrictions could be useful.
Four sentences were removed, and replaced with one, reading, “The Committee does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available.”
Earlier that month, WHO had issued a statement about the outbreak in Wuhan, which said, “WHO does not recommend any specific health measures for travelers. It is generally considered that entry screening offers little benefit, while requiring considerable resources.”
“WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the information currently available on this event,” the Jan. 10 statement added.
The statement gave that advice even as it acknowledged that, since travel in China was “expected to significantly increase during the Chinese New Year in the last week of January, the risk of cases being reported from elsewhere is increased.”
One day after the document on the WHO website was altered, President Trump on January 31 issued a proclamation temporarily barring entry to any foreign national who had visited China in the previous 14 days. The order took effect two nights later, on February 2.
By the time it did, health authorities were reporting eight confirmed cases in the U.S. of the respiratory disease later labeled COVID-19. Seven of the eight individuals had recently arrived from the outbreak epicenter, Wuhan in China. (The exception was a person who “shared a household with” one of the others.)
The WHO did not approve of Trump’s action – or similar actions taken by that stage by at least 21 other countries, including Singapore, Israel, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand.
Calling on countries not to impose restrictions, Tedros told WHO’s executive board on February 4, “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit. So far, 22 countries have reported such restrictions to WHO.”
China complained about Trump’s decision too, calling it an “overreaction.”
‘Racist and discriminatory responses’
Experts have differed over the effectiveness of travel restrictions in epidemic situations. When the first U.S. restrictions were put in place, some argued they would not be useful because they covered only travel from China, not from other countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases.
At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing three days after the restrictions began, Jennifer Nuzzo of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University called for a reexamination of the policy.
“All of the evidence we have indicates that travel restrictions and quarantines directed at individual countries are unlikely to keep the virus out of our borders,” she said. “Simply put, this virus is spreading too quickly and too silently, and our surveillance is too limited for us to truly know which countries have active transmission and which don’t. The virus could enter the U.S. from other parts of the world not on our restricted list, and it may already be circulating here.”
(On the day the restrictions began, the countries reporting the highest number of cases outside of China were Japan, with 20 cases, Thailand with 19, Singapore with 18, and South Korea with 15. China was reporting 17,228 cases.)
At that same hearing, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was also critical of the policy.
“The United States and other countries around the world have put in place unprecedented travel restrictions in response to the virus,” he said. “These measures have not proven to improve public health outcomes, rather they tend to cause economic harm, and to stoke racist and discriminatory responses to this epidemic.”
(The Democrat-controlled subcommittee hearing was entitled: “The Wuhan Coronavirus: Assessing the Outbreak, the Response, and Regional Implications”)
But on February 29, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci praised the earlier decision to restrict travel from China.
“I hearken back to the original decision that was made by the president of making sure that we knew the scenario that was going on in China. We prevented travel from China to the United States,” he said. “If we had not done that, we would have had many, many more cases right here that we would have to be dealing with.”