Biden Bans Travel from India

WASHINGTON — The White House, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced Friday that it would begin restricting travel from India to the United States next week, a major new test of the Biden administration’s pandemic response.

The decision was one of the most significant steps yet taken by the White House in response to the crush of new infections in India, where over 3,000 people are dying each day as citizens gasp for air on the streets. The country recorded almost 400,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday alone.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the policy would go into effect on Tuesday. The travel restrictions will not apply to citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States, their spouses or minor children or siblings, or to the parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents who are under 21.

The surge of the virus in India has posed a new challenge for Mr. Biden’s pandemic response. President Donald J. Trump’s decision to issue restrictions on travel from China early in the pandemic followed days of fierce debate among national security and public health officials, and was heavily criticized by Democrats and public health experts, who worried that the decision would hinder the nascent global response to the new threat.

Other countries, including Britain, Germany and Italy, have instituted similar restrictions on travel from India. Early in his presidency, Mr. Biden barred travel by noncitizens into the United States from South Africa because of concerns about a coronavirus variant spreading in that country, and he extended similar bans imposed by Mr. Trump on travel from Brazil and some European countries.

One senior Biden administration official said Friday that representatives from the National Security Council as well as public health officials in the administration had debated the India move in recent days, though not contentiously. It was recommended by Mr. Biden’s Covid-19 response team, medical experts and national security aides across the federal government.

Another senior official familiar with the decision said that it rested heavily on uncertainty over a homegrown variant spreading in India known as B.1.617. Doctors and news reports have cited anecdotal — but inconclusive — evidence to suggest that it is driving the country’s outbreak.

As federal health officials, including Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, discussed the possible move in recent days with White House officials, they emphasized that there was little known about how coronavirus vaccines respond to that variant.

One official said the travel restrictions could be modified once there was more data on vaccine response.

The move comes amid a deceleration in American vaccination rates that has complicated the nation’s quest to protect itself. Even with significant momentum in the government’s vaccination campaign — the White House announced on Friday that 100 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated — a majority of American adults are still not considered fully protected against the virus.

And in a sign that the government does not want to ease restrictions too quickly, the Transportation Security Administration on Friday extended mandates for mask-wearing on airplanes and public transit through Sept. 13.

“You can’t battle a pandemic with travel restrictions, unfortunately, which makes it so important to share vaccines with the world and implement public health measures before the virus gets to our shores,” she said.

Experts have long recommended against restricting travel during outbreaks, arguing that it is often ineffective and can limit the movements of doctors and other health professionals trying to contain the disease.

The decision on Friday comes under drastically different circumstances than those seen in the early weeks of the public health crisis.

Health officials have a much more sophisticated understanding of how the virus spreads. Coronavirus tests, which were in short supply last year when Mr. Trump issued travel restrictions, are widely available, with results often returned quickly. And three highly protective vaccines are in broad circulation. Even as health officials grapple with limited knowledge of the homegrown virus variant in India, those vaccines appear to be effective against other variants.

Months ago, India appeared to be escaping the kind of calamity it is now experiencing. After an initial lockdown, the country did not see an explosion in new cases and deaths comparable to those in other countries. But after the early restrictions were lifted, many Indians adopted a more relaxed approach to virus restrictions. Large gatherings, including political rallies and religious festivals, resumed and drew millions of people.

Hospitals in India are now facing dire shortages of beds, while relatives of the sick have pleaded on social media for access to them, as well as for oxygen and medicine. Many Indians say they do not know if they are infected with the coronavirus because overwhelmed labs have stopped processing tests. One in five tests are coming back positive, but experts fear the true toll is much higher.

There is some debate over how to explain the wave of virus cases, including which variant might be most responsible. Researchers say that data so far points to a variant that has spread widely in Britain and in the United States, B.1.1.7, as a significant factor in the country’s suffering.

Scientists say that different variants seem to dominate specific parts of India. The B.1.617 variant has been detected in a large number of samples from the central state of Maharashtra, while the B.1.1.7 variant is rising quickly in New Delhi.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Linda Qiu contributed reporting.

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