This week, a new US Covid travel requirement was added for entry into the country. While intended to improve safety, the plan is fundamentally flawed for one key reason.
The US Adds Entry Requirement
On January 12, 2021, the US confirmed that beginning January 26, 2021, all air passengers would have to comply with new COVID-19 testing requirements upon entry into the United States. The travel restriction states that passengers must provide proof of a negative test result within 72 hours of when their flight departs.
Airline staff are to check the negative Covid-19 test results as they would other travel documents, denying boarding to those who fail to qualify. PCR tests are named and approved as are Antigen. Connecting flights are unaffected so long as the passenger qualified for the first flight into the US and do not connect longer than 24 hours. This restriction applies to any traveler entering the country including US citizens and permanent residents.
The announcement with just 14 days to implementation left airlines scrambling.
The Lone Passenger Exception
On the CDC website, there was a cryptic text that stated those who had “recovered” from the virus. Matthew reached out to the CDC for clarification which resulted in this exception:
“In order to travel under this exception, you must bring proof of a positive test result as well as a signed letter from a licensed healthcare provider (on official letterhead) stating that you have been cleared to travel. The letter must include:
- Telephone number
Furthermore, the positive test must have occurred within the last 90 days.”
Why It’s Flawed
There are two schools of thought with regard to antibodies. First is that we don’t know for sure how long they last though studies give some guidance.
What this suggests is that the CDC is confident that antibodies will be present within 90 days from when the traveler has recovered from COVID-19. So much so that they don’t need to confirm the negative test (PCR) nor a positive test for antibodies. It’s essentially settled science.
However, given that none of the studies published have shown any diminishment of antibodies, proof of once having the virus should be sufficient, the 90-day requirement is arbitrary and superfluous.
Studies cited here show that while antibodies were thought to have only been present for four months, that was a misinterpretation as the study only lasted four months. Another study lasted seven months and again, antibodies were still present in all subjects for the duration. Still another (courtesy of commenters on the Boarding Area Facebook group) pair of studies that ran eight months showed the cells to still be effective for the duration. That’s not to say the study found them to be effective “for eight months” but rather that in eight months they were still active and would be longer if measured longer, but how long is unknown.
One possible reason for the 90-day rule could be that variants of the virus may be able to mutate and reinfect travelers who have already had the virus. However, for that to be a logical reason, that would assume that the same antibodies that would keep a traveler virus-free from the known version of COVID-19 are useless against the new strain. However, if the antibodies are useless against the new strain, then having COVID-19 (known) within 90 days wouldn’t apply at all.
Further, for those that never had COVID-19 but possess the antibodies, or were asymptomatic, or simply were never tested but had it and recovered – they are not a risk to public health. In fact, they lower the risk for everyone because they cannot contract the virus with antibodies present and thus cannot pass it on to others. Whereas a passenger that has a negative test result because they have never contracted it before remains a risk to public health because they remain susceptible to infection. Antibody holders do not.
A simple $25 test would prove that. If a passenger had the virus 91 days prior and has the antibodies present, they are not a risk, but do not qualify and must produce documentation of a negative test result.
And if the antibodies do eventually wear off and are no longer present, putting the traveler and the public at risk, an antibody test would communicate that as well.
Requiring a negative PCR test result is costly for travelers, slow, and reduces testing capacity for others. An Antibody test (which can be returned in 15 minutes at a Kroger, for example) is cheaper, doesn’t put a strain on the system keeps travel safer for others.
The arbitrary selection of 90 days since a negative test or recovery from COVID-19 doesn’t make logical sense when an antibody test would do the same thing. If, by chance, a person possesses the antibodies after 24 months following their recovery, why should they have to endure a PCR test to travel when they present no risk? And if antibodies aren’t settled science and recovered travelers could still be at risk, why aren’t they too tested inside of the 90-day window?
Some have noted that the 90-day window could be because recovered patients will continue to test positive for up to 90 days despite being COVID-19 free and fully recovered.
Until antibodies are proven ineffective against the virus, the antibody test alone should be sufficient for those that possess them. If no antibodies are present, then a PCR test makes perfect logical sense.
It’s as if the CDC is answering the wrong question. “How do we ensure the public it’s safe to travel?”
By proving that travelers don’t carry a risk at the time of their flight. “How do we prove that?” Either a PCR test or no test at all – you choose.
What do you think? Does this policy make logical sense to you? Shouldn’t antibody results matter?