What effect will a summer of international travel have on the pandemic?
As the summer holidays approach, countries like the United States and EU member states are easing pandemic entry rules on international travel and bracing for a surge in tourism. But with the resurgence of cases in Europe, what consequences could this summer travel season have on the evolution of the pandemic?
As vaccination increased and restrictions within countries eased, pandemic-era travel rules also diminished. After two years of strict Covid-19 travel restrictions and regulations, including broad entry bans, mandatory quarantines, masking during flights and the presentation of negative Covid tests and vaccine certificates, many countries Westerners are finally letting their guard down before the summer travel season.
In May, the European Union dropped its mask mandate for flight passengers, citing “levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity”. France has has opened its borders both vaccinated and non-vaccinated (provided they present a negative Covid test), while Italy has abolished all its entry rules for international travelers. Last Sunday, the United States waived the requirement mandating a negative Covid test before boarding a plane in the country, citing the widespread adoption of vaccines and the milder variant of Omicron.
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 Disease Prevention Agency has warned that although they do not appear to pose a higher risk of serious illness than other forms of Omicron, higher transmission rates could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. Portugal has seen a recent rise in infections and deaths fueled by the new strains, particularly in popular tourist hotspots like Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve region. And France also reported a 37% increase in infections and hospitalizations over the past week, driven by the subvariants.
But as more countries drop their pandemic travel restrictions and tourists swarm the now open borders, some wonder if these decisions are premature, given the unpredictability of the pandemic. FRANCE 24 spoke with Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.
FRANCE 24: What effects can we expect from this summer of the increase in international travel on the pandemic, especially as countries get rid of travel restrictions and guarantees?
Antoine Flahault: The scientific literature clearly shows that travel and population movement increase the spread of viruses, and in particular highly transmissible viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Prior to Omicron, countries that adopted strict border control and removal policies regarding the circulation of the virus were quite successful in limiting the spread of the virus within their territories. However, with the exception of China, most countries have now lifted these measures, which has likely resulted in faster and more intense Covid waves around the world. As for vaccines, they show low efficacy in slowing transmission, but they succeed in reducing the burden of Covid-19 in terms of hospitalizations and deaths.
Are we heading for a new wave of Covid in Europe this summer, as tourists flood borders and travel restrictions are lifted?
We clearly see the first signs of a new pandemic wave in Western Europe, which seems to be mainly fueled by BA.5, one of the new sub-variants of Omicron, and BA.4, which has already triggered waves in South Africa and Portugal. Another subvariant, BA.2.12.1, is currently spreading in the United States and is also circulating in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. The high mobility expected during the next summer season will not help slow the circulation of these viral strains throughout the continent.
In your opinion, are there any measures that governments should continue to apply to international travel to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid?
Most democracies have moved away from harsh restrictions, opting for more liberal approaches that allow people to protect themselves when they feel the need. It would be difficult to reimplement these past measures without convincing arguments. Of course, if a highly transmissible and virulent strain emerges, there won’t be as much debate about imposing strict measures. But with the existing tensions circulating, governments see no reason to continue to implement most of the old measures, even if they have proven useful in the recent past. Mask mandates on public transport and in nursing homes can probably again be more easily implemented than broader measures.
At this stage, where are we overall in our ambition to end the pandemic? The easing of government policies gives the impression that the pandemic is over, but is it really?
Vaccines and treatments have made all the difference in this pandemic. Before vaccines were widely distributed, we experienced a form of medieval response to the pandemic, with lockdowns and curfews. Now, with the notable exceptions of China and North Korea, we have entered a much more modern phase of the pandemic, which sees people resuming most of their previous activities. However, this “armed peace” is fragile and requires constant vigilance by health authorities in terms of maintaining immunity within the community, as well as more targeted approaches to limit risks in vulnerable segments of the population. We hope we won’t go back to “medieval” types of restrictions, but we can’t continue to live with a high death toll.
As an individual traveling during this season, what are the best ways to protect yourself?
For most people, that means being fully vaccinated with a booster or two and wearing FFP2 masks indoors and on public transport, while avoiding eating and drinking on those journeys. People should also prioritize outdoor activities and social interactions.
For vulnerable people, i.e. people over the age of 80, immunocompromised people or unvaccinated people with underlying conditions, they should plan to have easy access to Covid tests in case symptoms and to effective antiviral drugs if they test positive.