- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2020

The U.S. resisted calls for a British travel ban despite growing alarm Monday over a coronavirus strain in London and southern England that has upended the Christmas season, demoralized Wall Street and prompted dozens of countries to shut out British passengers.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered nonessential stores to close and told households not to mix over the holidays, citing data that suggests the strain is 70% more contagious than previously known strains.

The development is a blow to the year-end shopping season and is complicating high-wire “Brexit” talks with the European Union.

It also sparked sell-offs in Europe and tempered enthusiasm on Wall Street despite a stimulus deal in Congress. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq indexes dipped, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average rallied late for a small gain.

A key member of President Trump’s vaccine team said there is no “hard evidence” that the British strain is more aggressive because it is based on modeling and not experimental data such as animal tests. He said regular sequencing of the virus might have unveiled a spike in the British population.

“It may be just seeding happened in the shadows and we’re seeing now a surge, or maybe it has higher transmissibility,” said Moncef Slaoui, a science adviser for Operation Warp Speed.

SEE ALSO: White House coronavirus team: Britain virus strain not more deadly

Mr. Slaoui said newly approved vaccines should be effective against the variant, which also has been detected in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia and does not appear to cause more severe illness than known strains.

The world can ill afford another hiccup in the COVID-19 response. Europe faces another round of economic lockdowns, the U.S. counts over 2,500 deaths per day and ICU units in California report they are at capacity.

As countries shut out the British, the U.S. deliberated whether that was necessary.

“I think everything is possible. We just need to put everything on the table, have an open scientific discussion and make the best recommendation,” Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. coronavirus testing czar, told CNN.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said he won’t wait for federal action. He asked three airlines to require British travelers to produce negative test results before stepping foot in his state, citing the devastation caused by transmission from Europe in the spring.

“We can’t let history repeat itself with this new virus variant,” he said in a post on Twitter.

British Airways agreed to Mr. Cuomo’s demand, so the governor is trying to get Delta Airlines and Virgin Atlantic on board.

Fears of a new strain come at a critical juncture in the global fight against the virus.

The U.S. just approved a second coronavirus vaccine, from Moderna. Nearly 6 million doses are being sent to the states this week, along with 2 million additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine that kicked off the immunization campaign last week.

“We’re now on offense against the virus,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

The European Union on Monday approved the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed with German company BioNTech, clearing the way for vaccinations to begin right after Christmas.

Scientists don’t expect the British mutation to elude the immune response produced by available vaccines, given how they interact with the virus.

“The essential part of the virus, namely the spike protein, has remained sheltered from these changes. It has remained intact,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. “That gives us optimism about the effectiveness of the vaccine.”

Eli Lilly, which produces an antibody treatment for COVID-19 known as bamlanivimab, said testing suggests the drug should “maintain full activity” in combating the strain.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which makes an antibody “cocktail” that President Trump received in October, said it believes its version will remain effective too.

The strain is causing plenty of upheaval, however. It was first detected in September but swiftly became the dominant version, accounting for two-thirds of London cases by mid-December.

Much of Europe cut off travel from the United Kingdom, and France suspended freight transit across the English Channel for 48 hours. The freeze was imposed even as negotiators, hoping to avoid more upheaval, raced against a 10-day deadline to sort out details of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Hong Kong barred British passengers. Canada, Russia, India and others also imposed restrictions. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, shut its doors to international travel altogether.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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