Hundreds arrive from Delhi and Mumbai on day 1 of Indian travel ban

Hundreds of people arrived in America from Mumbai and Delhi on Tuesday, the first day of Biden’s ban on travel for non US citizens from India, to escape the world’s worst COVID surge. 

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Biden’s ban applies to non-US citizens but permanent US residents, their family members and some others – like students – are exempt from it. It is similar to the ban on travel to the US from South African and multiple European countries. There are still flights to get into the US from India but Air India is canceling its New York-Delhi route from May 7.  

India is in the midst of the worst COVID surge the world has seen. Official reporting puts the daily death till at around 3,000 but health leaders say it is likely ten times that at more than 30,000. 

It is down to a new variant – B.1.617, which has now been split into three distinct variants because it has mutated into similar but genetically different viruses. Early research has suggested the vaccines are effective against B.1.617. 

On Tuesday, people were seen arriving at Newark Airport in New Jersey and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi.  

It is unclear if they were American citizens or the family members of American citizens. None wished to share their information as they arrived.  

It is also unclear who is checking the status of those now entering the country on the remaining flights. The ban went into effect at 12.01am on Tuesday morning. 

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  • a group of people standing around a bag of luggage: A family waits for their luggage in the Newark baggage claim after flying in on an Air India flight from Delhi or Mumbai. Both direct routes will still operating on Tuesday

  • a group of people with luggage at an airport: Some of those on board the direct flights were wearing full hazmat suits out of an abundance of caution over the new India variant

  • a person holding a sign: Emotional families reunite in the arrivals hall at Newark after the flights arrived in the morning

  • a group of people sitting on a suitcase: Newark Airport on Tuesday morning

  • a group of people carrying luggage: Passengers arrive in on Air India from Delhi and Mumbai this morning at Newark Airport, New Jersey, on Tuesday. President Biden has banned non US citizens flying from India to the US but people who hold permanent residency or their relatives are still allowed to get in and flights are still running

  • a group of people standing around a luggage carousel at an airport: A man arrives at Newark on an Air India flight on Tuesday morning. India is experiencing the worst COVID disaster the world has seen and many are rushing to leave

It is the responsibility of the State Department, Transportation Department (TSA) and Homeland Security (Customs and Border Patrol) to enforce the ban. 

Many were seen hugging people who were waiting for them in the arrivals hall on Tuesday. 

New York has the largest population of Indian Americans in the countries but there are large Indian communities in Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore and Texas.  

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb had said Biden’s ban on Indian travel is useless because he suspects the variants are already in America. 

‘I’m not sure what we’re hoping to accomplish. If the goal is to try to prevent the introduction of that new variant 617 that’s circulating in India, I assure you it’s here already. 

‘So we’re not going to be able to prevent its introduction. These variants aren’t just cropping up in one market and then migrating around the world. 

‘They’re cropping up simultaneously in every market,’ he said during an appearance on CBS’s Face The Nation on Sunday.

  • a person holding a piece of luggage: There were emotional reunions at Newark as people arrived on the flights from India, where COVID cases have surpassed 20million

  • There were emotional reunions at Newark as people arrived on the flights from India, where COVID cases have surpassed 20million

  • a person holding a child: The flights from India are not being stopped by they will be limited

  • The flights from India are not being stopped by they will be limited

  • a group of people standing around a bag of luggage: Passengers from Air India flight from New Delhi arrive at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Chicago

  • a group of people with luggage at an airport: Passengers from Air India flight from New Delhi arrive at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Chicago

  • a group of people standing on top of a suitcase: Passengers arrive at O'Hare Airport in Chicago from a flight from Delhi on Tuesday morning

Back in January, President Joe Biden added South Africa to a list of countries the US is restricting travel from after a COVID-19 variant started spreading rapidly there and was detected in various states. 

Video: Red Cross helps India face COVID outbreak crisis (Associated Press)

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The US, to date, has not banned flights from countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic but has restricted travel for non-citizens from somewhere the virus, or its variants, were spreading. 

The ban prohibits foreigners who have been in a restricted country in the 14 days prior from coming to the US. The restrictions do not apply to American citizens returning to the US.

Other countries on the restricted list include the UK, Brazil, Ireland, China and 26 European countries that are part of the border-free Schengen zone.

They include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.  

A number of countries, including the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Dubai, have all canceled flights from India amid the current outbreak there. 

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  • a person standing on a rock: A relative mourns next to the body of his loved one who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cremation ground in Allahabad on May 4, 2021

  • a group of people in a rocky area: Volunteers and relatives prepare to cremate the bodies of people who died due to the coronavirus disease at a crematorium ground in Giddenahalli village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India

  • a group of people standing around a fire: Funeral pyres of people who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus are seen at a cremation ground in New Delhi on May 4, 2021

  • a group of people standing around a fire: People watch the cremation of people who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at Sahudangi Crematorium, some 15 Km from Siliguri on May 4, 2021

  • a person cooking hot dogs on a grill: Relatives cremate the body of a person who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a crematorium ground in Giddenahalli village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, May 2, 2021

  • a person holding a sign: A policeman asks people who came to receive a dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to leave as they stand outside the gate of a vaccination center

The situation in India is becoming more dire with the country recording the world’s sharpest spike in COVID infections this month that has seen cities run out of hospital beds, oxygen and medicines.

Second only to the US in total infections, India has reported more than 300,000 new cases daily for nine days in a row, hitting another global record of 386,452 on Friday.

Total deaths have surpassed 200,000 and cases are nearing 19 million – nearly 8 million since February alone as virulent new strains have combined with ‘super-spreader’ events such as political rallies and religious festivals.

Medical experts say real numbers may be five to 10 times higher than the official tally.

Scientists are studying what led to an unexpected surge and particularly whether the variant is to blame. The variant has been reported in some 18 countries, raising global concern.

Prominent US disease modeller Chris Murray, from the University of Washington, told Reuters that the sheer magnitude of infections in India in a short period of time suggests an ‘escape variant’ may be overpowering any prior immunity from natural infections in those populations.

‘That makes it most likely that it’s B.1.617,’ he said.

Gravediggers in India are working around the clock to bury victims and hundreds more are being cremated in makeshift pyres in parks and parking lots.

The US started sending supplies worth more than $100 million on Thursday, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests.

The US also has redirected its own order of AstraZeneca manufacturing supplies to India, to allow it to make more than 20 million doses, the White House said. 

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.617

When and where was it discovered? 

The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021. But the first cases appear to date back to October 2020. 

What mutations does it have? 

It has 13 mutations that separate it from the original virus that emerged in China — but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.

Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants.  

Is it more infectious? 

The L452R mutation is also found on the Californian variant (B.1.429), even though the two evolved independently. It is thought to make the American strain 20 per cent more infectious. 

The E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.

The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness. 

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