As summer vacation approaches, countries like the US and EU member states are easing pandemic entry rules on international travel and readying themselves for a surge of tourism. But with cases on the rise in Europe, what consequences could this summer travel season have on the evolution of the pandemic?
As vaccine uptake increased and restrictions within countries faded away, so did pandemic-era travel rules. After two years of stringent 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 in the West are finally letting their guard down ahead of the summer travel season.
In May, the European Union dropped its mask mandate for passengers on flights, citing “the levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity”. France has opened its borders to both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated (provided they present a negative Covid test), while Italy has abolished all its entry rules for international travellers. Last Sunday, the United States lifted the requirement mandating a negative Covid test before boarding a plane into the country, citing widespread adoption of vaccines and the milder Omicron variant.
However, two new subvariants of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, first identified in South Africa in early 2022, are spreading quickly in Europe. The EU’s disease prevention agency has warned that though they do not appear to carry higher risk of severe disease than other forms of Omicron, higher transmission rates could lead to more hospitalisations and deaths. Portugal has experienced a recent uptick of infections and deaths fuelled by the new strains, especially in popular tourist hotspots like Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve region. And France has also reported a 37 percent increase in infections and hospitalisations in the past week, driven by the subvariants.
But as more countries leave behind their pandemic travel restrictions and tourists swarm the now open borders, some wonder whether these decisions are premature, given the pandemic’s unpredictability. 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 increased international travel on the pandemic, especially as countries are getting rid of travel restrictions and safeguards?
Antoine Flahault: Scientific literature clearly shows that travel and population movement increase the spread of viruses, and particularly highly transmissible viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Before Omicron, countries that adopted strict border control and suppression policies with regards to virus circulation were quite successful in limiting the spread of the virus into their territories. However, with the exception of China, most countries have now lifted such measures, probably leading to greater speed and intensity of Covid waves globally. As for vaccines, they show poor effectiveness in slowing transmission, but they successfully reduce the burden of Covid-19 in terms of hospitalisations and deaths.
Are we moving towards another Covid wave in Europe this summer, as tourists flood the borders and restrictions on travel are lifted?
We clearly see early signs of a new pandemic wave in Western Europe, which seems to be mainly driven by BA.5, one of the new subvariants of Omicron, and BA.4, which already triggered waves in South Africa and Portugal. Another subvariant, BA.2.12.1, is currently spreading in the US and is also circulating in Europe, particularly in the UK. The high mobility expected in the upcoming summer season will not help to slow circulation of these viral strains all over the continent.
In your view, are there measures that governments should continue to apply to international travel to lessen the risk of Covid spread?
Most democracies have given up on tough restrictions, choosing more liberal approaches that allow people to protect themselves when they feel the need. It would be difficult to implement these past measures again without convincing arguments. Of course, if a highly transmissible and virulent strain emerges, then there won’t be as much debate about mandating tough measures. But with the existing strains that are circulating, governments do not see reasons to continue implementing most of the former measures, even if they proved useful in the recent past. Mask mandates in public transport and in nursing homes can probably be more easily implemented again than broader measures.
At this stage, where are we globally in our ambition to put an end to the pandemic? The loosening of government policies make it seem like the pandemic is over, but is this really the case?
Vaccines and treatments have made all the difference in this pandemic. Before vaccines were widely distributed, we experienced a form of medieval response against 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 allows people to resume most of their prior activities. However, this “armed peace” is fragile, and requires constant vigilance from 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 that we will not return to “medieval” types of restrictions, but we cannot continue living with high death tolls.
As an individual travelling 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 journeys. People should also favour outdoor activities and social interactions.
For vulnerable people, i.e. those who are over 80 years old, immunocompromised individuals, or unvaccinated people with underlying conditions, they should plan to have easy access to Covid tests in the case of symptoms, and effective antiviral drugs if they test positive.