Working paper

Reducing mobility of SARS-CoV-2 variants to safeguard containment

Escape variants can cause new waves of COVID-19 and put vaccination strategies at risk. To prevent or delay the global spread of these waves, virus mo

Publishing date
04 May 2021

When the coronavirus pandemic started in 2019/2020, a number of countries reacted early, closing down public life and reducing private contacts before contagion fully took off. Countries that failed to do this saw large spikes in cases, stretching or overwhelming their medical capacities. Likewise, countries that ignored warning signals of a second wave were hit hard in autumn 2020. A third wave, caused by the more contagious B.1.1.7 SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus variant, has unfolded. This variant was first recognised in Kent, United Kingdom, from where it spread quickly across the UK and beyond. It spread to countries with more travel to the UK earlier than others. Germany was affected relatively late while Portugal and Ireland were affected early because of more intensive travel links. Another variant, P1, is also spreading rapidly in Brazil and countries with strong travel connections to Brazil, such as Chile.

People travelling play a central role in spreading new variants of SARS-CoV-2, with devastating consequences. Stopping a new variant from entering from abroad, or at least slowing it down, would facilitate containment and limit the human, social and economic costs. The experience with B.1.1.7 shows how slower entry of a variant to a country delays the deterioration of the health situation and the introduction of strict and costly lockdowns.

Public policy in advanced economies is focusing on vaccination in the hope this will bring down the number of severe cases and deaths while allowing restrictions to be lifted (Dagan et al, 2021). By the end of 2021, large parts of the populations of Israel, Chile, the US, the UK and the EU will have received the vaccine and will be largely immune to the wild strain and some variants of COVID-19.

Recommended citation:
Hellwig, M., V. Priesemann and G.B. Wolff (2021) ‘Reducing the mobility of SARS-CoV-2 variants to safeguard containment’, Working Paper 07/2021, Bruegel

About the authors

  • Guntram B. Wolff

    Guntram Wolff is the Director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy and governance, fiscal, monetary and financial policy, climate change and geoeconomics. Under his leadership, Bruegel has been regularly ranked among the top global think tanks and has grown in influence and impact with a team of now almost 40 recognized scholars and around 65 total staff. Bruegel is also recognized for its outstanding transparency.

    A recognized thought leader and academic, he regularly testifies at the European Finance Ministers' ECOFIN meeting, the European Parliament, the German Parliament (Bundestag) and the French Parliament (Assemblée Nationale). From 2012-16, he was a member of the French prime minister's Conseil d'Analyse Economique. In 2018, then IMF managing director Christine Lagarde appointed him to the external advisory group on surveillance to review the Fund’s priorities. In 2021, he was appointed to the G20 high level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. He is also a professor (part-time) at the Solvay Brussels School of Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he teaches economics of European integration.

    He joined Bruegel from the European Commission, where he worked on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Prior to joining the Commission, he was coordinating the research team on fiscal policy at Deutsche Bundesbank. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund.

    He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bonn and studied in Bonn, Toulouse, Pittsburgh and Passau. He taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh and at Université libre de Bruxelles. He has published numerous papers in leading academic journals. His columns and policy work are published and cited in leading international media and policy outlets. Guntram is fluent in German, English, French and has good notions of Bulgarian and Spanish.

  • Martin Hellwig

    Martin Hellwig is Director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and a Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn, Germany. He holds a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has held university positions at Stanford, Princeton, Bonn, Basel, Harvard, and Mannheim. His research interests involve the economics of information and incentives, public goods and taxation, financial institutions and financial stability, network industries and competition policy. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society and the Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Economic Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Past President of the European Economic Association and the Verein für Socialpolitik (German Economic Association) and the Co-Winner of the 2012 Max Planck Research Award for his work on International Financial Regulation. He is also a Member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the German Ministry of the Economy and Technology, a Past Chairman of the German Monopolies Commission and of the German Government’s Advisory Committee of Wirtschaftsfonds Deutschland. In 2011/12 he also was the first Chair of the Advisory Scientific Committee of the European Systemic Risk Board. He is a co-author, with Anat Admati from Stanford University, of the book "The Bankers' New Clothes: What's Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It", Princeton University Press 2013.

  • Viola Priesemann

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