A flurry of news stories from the last few days has revealed a concerning COVID-19 variant that once again threatens the travel industry’s elusive recovery.
COVID-19 Omicron Variant
News from South Africa (Botswana) of a new COVID-19 variant has many around the world on pins and needles. This is the fourteenth variant though it’s named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet (omicron) rather than the 14th (xi.) Originally linked to Botswana, the variant has few confirmed cases, notable countries include the UK and Hong Kong, though a KLM flight had a substantial number of cases on a single flight yesterday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) held an emergency meeting to discuss the new version of the infectious disease on Black Friday (November 26th, 2021), just two days after it was discovered.
All of the news regarding the variant is concerning if not solely for the fear that comes from the unknown. Some information appears to be somewhat conflicting. The immediate concern over Omicron as exemplified by the WHO and other organizations as well as being labeled a “variant of concern” seems ominous. Initial news also indicated that vaccination was ineffective against omicron, though with so few cases, and such little time, broad assumptions as to whether vaccination, treatments, or natural immunity are effective are clearly premature.
“It looks like this particular variant has a very concerning set of mutations especially in the spike protein, which is needed for its transmission properties as well as its protection against the vaccines, so based on the genetic information we are quite concerned about it,” Pasi Penttinen, public health emergency response manager at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told CNBC on Friday.
However, Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, told the BBC on Friday that the early discovery of the variant could render it easier to contain.
Balloux added that even if B.1.1.529 is more transmissible than previous variants, it would not “bring us to square one” in the effort to contain the virus. He suggested that it should be seen an irritating setback rather than a rebirth of the pandemic.” – CNBC
The doctor that discovered and reported the variant suggested that while perhaps more transmissible, the concern was different symptoms but not a more life-threatening variant:
“The first South African doctor to alert the authorities about patients with the omicron variant has told The Telegraph that the symptoms of the new variant are unusual but mild.”
…They included young people of different backgrounds and ethnicities with intense fatigue and a six-year-old child with a very high pulse rate, she said. None suffered from a loss of taste or smell.
…“We had one very interesting case, a kid, about six years old, with a temperature and a very high pulse rate, and I wondered if I should admit her. But when I followed up two days later, she was so much better,” Dr Coetzee says.
Dr Coetzee, who was briefing other African medical associations on Saturday, made clear her patients were all healthy and she was worried the new variant could still hit older people – with co-morbidities such as diabetes or heart disease – much harder.” – Telegraph
The doctor noted that about half of the patients that had tested positive for the virus were vaccinated, half were not in a country with a 6% vaccination rate.
Travel Restrictions Coming Back
Not much is yet known as previously cited above, but fear of yet another round of health concerns, crippling shutdowns, and yielding progress made against COVID-19 has caused many countries to restrict travel to known source countries:
“The European Union is restricting travel to and from seven countries in southern Africa — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — while the United States and South Korea have targeted those countries and Malawi. Britain has restricted travel with those eight nations and Angola, Mozambique and Zambia.” – The New York Times
The United Kingdom, in addition to banning travel from the aforementioned countries, has reverted all travelers to the unvaccinated approach with an initial entry test required, self-isolation through the first two days, and then another test before potential release for vaccinated travelers. Unvaccinated travelers follow the same protocol but remain isolated until the fifth day where they can test negative again to release. The UK has moved from allowing the lateral flow test to only accepting a PCR test though the entry requirements on Gov.UK have not been updated.
Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister made the following comments:
“We’re not going to stop people travelling,” he stressed during a press conference Saturday. “But we will require anyone who enters the U.K. to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.” – Politico
Some have criticized travel restrictions against South African nations as a punishment for its transparency.
Travel Industry Recovery Threatened
While Prime Minister Johnson has stated that he does not intend to shut down travel again, he has stated that “suspected” positive COVID cases regardless of vaccination status will require a 10-day quarantine and then he limited travel. Many other nations have limited travel as well and that suggests that as more cases are reported other countries could be added to the restriction lists.
Just as the world was beginning to recover from substantial restrictions, the customs door has swung closed again in a targeted fashion for the moment. Travel company leaders will face new cancellations, booking apprehension, and will have to again convince travelers and the governments they operate under of the case for travel.
What remains confusing to this writer is the mix of both cases being milder and potentially more threatening at the same time. However, grace is required and given in situations such as this where scientists are learning about it in real-time and getting raw data out to the public as quickly and accurately as possible.
What do you think? Are you concerned about the omicron variant? Have you or will you change plans? Will you wait and see?