Press Release

New Research: Reducing Global Travel Will Not Stop the Next Pandemic

December 10, 2020
Contact: Eva Grant Center for Global Development [email protected] +1.202.416.4027

Reducing global travel by as much as 50% would only delay next pandemic by 1-2 weeks

WASHINGTON—Reducing international travel in the long-term is not an effective policy to reduce the health risks of future pandemics, new analysis released by the Center for Global Development has found.

As the world prepares for the likelihood of future pandemics after COVID-19, authors Michael Clemens and Thomas Ginn used standard epidemiological models to analyze historical data from four different pandemics in three centuries. The data covers the influenza pandemics that began in 1889, 1918, 1957, and 2009, allowing them to study how changes in exposure to pre-pandemic international travel, across countries and over time, shape the spread and severity of pandemics. The research considers the effects of broader global integration though travel and migration before a pandemic begins, not the effects of emergency travel bans during a pandemic.

While permanently reducing international travel may seem like an intuitive, proactive strategy, the researchers argue that reductions in international travel and migration in anticipation of future threats would do little to keep people safe. Specific findings include:

  • Even a draconian 50 percent reduction in a country’s international arrivals in the long term—including citizens and non-citizens—would only delay the arrival of the next pandemic disease by 1–2 weeks.
  • This slight delay in pandemic arrival is not associated with any decline in the sickness and death caused as a pandemic runs its course.
  • The case for permanent limits on international mobility to reduce the harm of future pandemics is weak.

“Large, permanent restrictions on international mobility may help slightly delay the arrival of the next pandemic. But they would come at enormous cost. And that slight delay has not meaningfully reduced the harm of pandemics in the past,” said co-author Michael Clemens, director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy at the Center for Global Development. “Pandemics reached most of the world within two months a century ago, when international travel was far less, just as they do now. The tragedy of sickness and death in pandemics is shaped by how countries respond to them, not the number of people who move between countries.”

“Our research doesn’t address emergency policies to fight ongoing pandemics,” added co-author Thomas Ginn, research fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Instead, it shows that neither governments nor individuals need to slow tourism, trade, and migration in anticipation of future threats. There are actions governments can take to prepare and protect populations from pandemics. Reducing global mobility in general—and forgoing the many benefits that come with it—is not one of them.”

The paper is available here, along with appendix data: /publication/global-mobility-and-threat-pandemics-evidence-three-centuries.