With the summer holidays approaching, countries like the United States and member states of the European Union are relaxing pandemic entry rules on international travel and preparing for an increase in tourism. But with cases increasing in Europe, what consequences might this summer travel season have on the development of the pandemic?
As vaccine uptake increases and restrictions within countries fade, so do pandemic-era travel rules. After two years of stringent Covid-19 travel restrictions and regulations, including broad entry bans, mandatory quarantines, concealment during flights and provision of negative Covid tests and vaccine certificates, many countries in the West are finally starting to let their guard down before the summer travel season.
In May, the European Union dropped the mask mandate for passengers on flights, citing “levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity”. France has opened its borders to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people (provided they give a negative Covid test), while Italy has scrapped all of its entry rules for international travelers. Last Sunday, the United States scrapped the requirement to test negative for Covid before boarding a plane into the country, citing widespread adoption of vaccines and the milder Omicron variant.
However, two new sub-variants of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, first identified in South Africa in early 2022, are spreading rapidly in Europe. The European Union’s Disease Prevention Agency has warned that while it does not appear to carry a higher risk of serious illness than other forms of omicron, higher transmission rates may lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. Portugal has seen a recent rise in infections and deaths fueled by the new breeds, especially in popular tourist areas such as Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve region. France also reported a 37 percent increase in infections and hospitalizations in the past week, driven by subvariables.
But with more countries leaving behind pandemic travel restrictions and tourists sweeping across the now-open borders, some are questioning whether these decisions were premature, given the unpredictability of the pandemic. France 24 spoke with Antoine Flaholt, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva.
FRANCE 24: What effects can we expect from this summer of increased international travel on the pandemic, especially as countries get rid of travel restrictions and safeguards?
Antoine Flaholt: The scientific literature clearly shows that travel and population movement increase the spread of viruses, especially highly contagious viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Prior to Omicron, countries that had adopted strict border control and repression policies regarding the circulation of the virus were quite successful in curbing the spread of the virus in their territories. However, with the exception of China, most countries have now lifted such measures, which could lead to an increase in the speed and intensity of Covid waves globally. As for vaccines, they show little efficacy in slowing transmission, but they have been successful in reducing the burden of Covid-19 in terms of hospitalizations and deaths.
Are we heading towards another wave of Covid in Europe this summer, as tourists flood borders and travel restrictions are lifted?
We clearly see early signs of a new epidemic wave in Western Europe, which appears to be primarily driven by BA.5, one of the new sub-variants of Omicron, and BA.4, which has already launched waves in South Africa and Portugal. Another variant, BA.2.12.1, is currently prevalent in the United States and is also circulating in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom. The expected higher mobility in the coming summer season will not help slow the spread of these viral strains across the continent.
In your opinion, are there measures that governments should continue to apply to international travel to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid?
Most democracies have abandoned strict restrictions, opting for more liberal methods that allow people to protect themselves when they feel the need. It would be difficult to carry out these previous actions again without convincing arguments. Of course, if a highly contagious and virulent strain emerged, there would not be much debate about imposing strict measures. But with the current pressures circulating, governments see no reason to continue implementing most of the previous measures, even if they were helpful in the recent past. Mask mandates on public transportation and in nursing homes are likely to be implemented more easily than broader measures.
At this point, where are we globally in our ambition to end the pandemic? Relaxing government policies makes it seem as if the pandemic is over, but is that really the case?
Vaccines and treatments have made all the difference in this pandemic. Before vaccines were widely distributed, we faced some form of medieval response to an epidemic, with lockdowns and curfews. Now, with the notable exceptions of China and North Korea, we have entered a more recent phase of the epidemic, which allows people to resume most of their previous activities. However, this “armed peace” is fragile, and requires constant vigilance from health authorities regarding the maintenance of immunity within the community, as well as more targeted approaches to reducing risks in vulnerable segments of the population. Hopefully we won’t go back to “medieval” kinds of restrictions, but we can’t continue to live with the death toll rising.
As an individual traveling during this season, what are the best ways to protect oneself?
For most people, this means being fully vaccinated with one or two boosters and wearing FFP2 masks indoors and on public transport, while avoiding eating and drinking during these trips. People should also prefer outdoor activities and social interactions.
Those at risk, i.e. those over 80 years of age, immunocompromised individuals, or non-immune persons with underlying conditions, should plan to have easy access to Covid tests in case of symptoms, and effective antiviral drugs if they result The test is positive.