How will the new Omnicron variant affect air travel? IATA comments, WHO provides an update

IATA issued this statement on the new Omnicron variant from Africa:

Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General following the recent emergence of the Omicron variant:

“Governments are responding to the risks of the new coronavirus variant in emergency mode causing fear among the traveling public. As quickly as possible we must use the experience of the last two years to move to a coordinated data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine. Travel restrictions are not a long-term solution to control COVID variants.”

In other news, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) called for caution in response to a European Commission Recommendation that the EU Digital COVID Certificate (DCC) should only remain valid for up to nine months after the second vaccination dose, unless a booster jab is administered.

“The EU DCC is a great success in driving a common continent-wide approach to managing the COVID-19 health crisis and in facilitating the freedom of people to travel again. It underpins a fragile recovery in the travel and tourism sector. And it is critical that any changes to it have a joined-up approach that recognizes the impact of divergent policies by individual member states and promotes further harmonization across Europe,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe.

Booster Shots

The critical issue is vaccine validity and the requirement for booster shots. As the immunity afforded by vaccination wears off, booster jabs are being increasingly offered to extend and strengthen people’s immune response. However, if booster shots are mandated to maintain the validity of the DCC, it is vital that states harmonize their approach to the length of time allowed between the point of full vaccination and administering the additional dose. The nine months proposed by the Commission could be insufficient. It would be better to delay this requirement until all states are offering booster jabs to all citizens, and for a twelve-month validity to give more time for people to access a booster dose, considering the differing national vaccination approaches being taken.

“The proposal to manage limitations on the validity of the DCC creates many potential problems. People who received the vaccine before March, including many health workers, will need to have accessed a booster by 11 January or may be unable to travel. Will EU states agree on a standardized time period? How will the requirement be harmonized with the many states that have developed COVID passes that are reciprocally recognized by the EU?
Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said booster shots should be prioritized for vulnerable groups that have not had a first dose, let alone a booster. Worldwide, the vaccine program still has a long way to go in many developing states and the focus should be on ensuring vaccine equity. Given that the majority of  air travelers are not in the most vulnerable groups, allowing a twelve-month time period before a booster is needed would be a more practical approach for travelers and a fairer approach for vaccine equity,” said Schvartzman.

Vaccine Recognition

A further element of concern is the Commission’s recommendation that travelers vaccinated with a non-EU approved vaccine should present a negative pre-departure PCR test. This will discourage travel from many parts of the world where infection rates are low, but the population have been vaccinated by WHO-approved vaccines which have yet to gain regulatory approval in the EU.

“Governments should prioritize policies that are simple, predictable and practical in order to ensure passengers regain confidence to travel and airlines confidence to reopen routes. The European Centre for Disease Control is explicit in its latest risk report that travel restrictions are unlikely to have any major impact on the timing or intensity of local epidemics*. We appreciate that authorities must remain vigilant, but discriminating among vaccines that have been approved by the WHO is a waste of resources and an unnecessary barrier to people’s freedom to travel,” said Schvartzman.

 

The WHO issued this update:

On November 26, 2021, WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named Omicron, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).  This decision was based on the evidence presented to the TAG-VE that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes. Here is a summary of what is currently known.

 

Current knowledge about Omicron 

Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available.

TransmissibilityIt is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.

Severity of disease: It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.  Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.  There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.  Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.  All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.

 

Effectiveness of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection 

Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (ie, people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited. More information on this will become available in the coming days and weeks.

Effectiveness of vaccines: WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.

Effectiveness of current tests: The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.

Effectiveness of current treatments:   Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.

 

Studies underway

At the present time, WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron. Studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments.

WHO encourages countries to contribute the collection and sharing of hospitalized patient data through the WHO COVID-19 Clinical Data Platform to rapidly describe clinical characteristics and patient outcomes.

More information will emerge in the coming days and weeks. WHO’s TAG-VE will continue to monitor and evaluate the data as it becomes available and assess how mutations in Omicron alter the behavior of the virus.

 

Recommended actions for countries 

As Omicron has been designated a Variant of Concern, there are several actions WHO recommends countries to undertake, including enhancing surveillance and sequencing of cases;  sharing genome sequences on publicly available databases, such as GISAID; reporting initial cases or clusters to WHO; performing field investigations and laboratory assessments to better understand if Omicron has different transmission or disease characteristics, or impacts effectiveness of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics or public health and social measures.

Countries should continue to implement the effective public health measures to reduce COVID-19 circulation overall, using a risk analysis and science-based approachThey should increase some public health and medical capacities to manage an increase in cases.  WHO is providing countries with support and guidance for both readiness and response.

In addition, it is vitally important that inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines are urgently addressed to ensure that vulnerable groups everywhere, including health workers and older persons, receive their first and second doses, alongside equitable access to treatment and diagnostics.  

 

Recommended actions for people 

The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.  

WHO will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available, including following meetings of the TAG-VE. In addition, information will be available on WHO’s digital and social media platforms.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on UK measures: