The road to the endemic phase, IATA urges to accelerate the relaxation of restrictions

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The road to the endemic phase, IATA urges to accelerate the relaxation of restrictions
Source: Twitter @IATA
January 27, 2022

“Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That is why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase risk to populations at large," said Willie Walsh, Director General of the International Air Transport Association

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged governments to speed up relaxation of travel restrictions as COVID-19 continues to evolve from pandemic to endemic stage. IATA called for all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) to be removed for those who are fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine, allowing quarantine-free travel for unvaccinated travelers with a negative antigen test result before of departure, lifting travel bans, and accelerating the relaxation of travel restrictions in recognition that travelers do not pose a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than already exists in the general population.

“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is growing scientific evidence and opinion opposing country restrictions and bans targeting travelers to control the spread of COVID-19. The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That is why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk for populations in general. The billions spent on testing travelers would be far more effective if allocated to distributing vaccines or strengthening healthcare systems,” said Willie Walsh, IATA Director General.

A recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health  demonstrated the extremely limited impact of travel restrictions in controlling the spread of Omicron . The study found that:

  • If the UK extra measures regarding Omicron had been in place since early November (prior to variant identification), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with 3% fewer cases.
  • The absence of testing measures for travelers would have seen the Omicron wave spike seven days earlier with an overall 8% increase in cases.
  • Now that Omicron is highly prevalent in the UK, if all travel testing requirements were removed there would be no impact on the number of Omicron cases or hospitalizations in the UK.

“While the study is specific to the UK, it is clear that travel restrictions anywhere in the world have had little impact on the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant. The UK, France and Switzerland have recognized this and are among the first to start removing travel measures. More governments must follow suit. Accelerating the lifting of travel restrictions will be an important step in living with the virus," Walsh said.

Regarding travel bans, last week the WHO Emergency Committee confirmed its recommendation to “Lift or ease international traffic bans as they provide no added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced by State. The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and notification of the Omicron variant to limit the international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time. ”

What happens when COVID-19 is confirmed to be endemic?
All signs point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition, one in which humanity now has the tools (including vaccination and therapy) to live and travel, bolstered by growing population immunity.

This aligns with advice from public health experts to shift policy focus from the health status of an individual to policies that focus on protecting the entire population. It is important that governments and the travel industry are well prepared for the transition and ready to remove the burden of measures that disrupt travel.

“The current situation of travel restrictions is a disaster. There is a problem: COVID-19. But there seem to be more unique solutions to managing travel and COVID-19 than there are countries to travel to. In fact, research from the Migration Policy Institute has counted more than 100,000 travel measures worldwide that create management complexity for passengers, airlines, and governments. We have two years of experience to guide us on a streamlined and coordinated path to travel normally when COVID-19 is endemic. That normality must recognize that travelers, with very few exceptions, will not present greater risk than that which exists in the general population. And that's why travelers shouldn't be subject to greater restrictions than those that apply to the community at large," Walsh said.

Vaccination priorities
Mutually recognized vaccination policies will be essential as we approach the endemic phase. Barrier-free travel is a powerful incentive for vaccination. The sustainability of this incentive must not be compromised by vaccine policies that complicate travel or divert vaccine resources from where they can do the most good. Issues to be addressed include:

  • Accepted vaccines: There is no universal recognition for all vaccines on the WHO emergency use list. This poses a barrier to travel, as people have little choice about the range of vaccines available in their country.
  • Validity: There is no alignment on the duration of the validity of the vaccine. This will become a barrier to travel as eligibility for boosters is controlled by national policies. Unduly short validity periods that effectively require air passengers to receive regular booster shots for international travel will drain resources that could support primary vaccination in the developing world and booster doses for the most vulnerable. The WHO Chief Scientist is reported to have called for booster doses to be used “to protect the most vulnerable, to protect those most at risk of severe illness and death. Those are […] older populations, immunocompromised people with underlying conditions, but also healthcare workers.”
  • Prioridades de distribución: los llamados de la OMS y los expertos en salud para la equidad de las vacunas no tienen prioridad universal. Solo la mitad de los estados de África han podido vacunar a más del 10 % de su población, mientras que muchos países desarrollados están reduciendo la validez de la vacunación y considerando segundas rondas de refuerzos. Esto crea una barrera para los viajes y los recursos de prueba de cepas en partes del mundo donde la distribución de vacunas está menos avanzada.

“Urgent consideration is needed for several critical concerns regarding vaccines. While Europe is lining up around a nine-month shelf life for primary vaccines, this is not universal. And the validity of the booster injection has not been addressed. With the first quarter of the year being key for bookings for the peak summer travel season in the north, it's important to give potential travelers certainty as soon as possible. Governments have declared intentions to support the recovery of travel. Addressing questions about the validity of vaccination is a key element,” Walsh said.

Industry and governments finding solutions together
In October, the  Ministerial Declaration  of the ICAO High-Level Conference on COVID-19 called for “a vision for the recovery of aviation”. IATA followed up with the  From Restart to Recovery publication  in November. It is a model for reconnecting the world following key principles of simplicity, predictability, and practicality .

“The overreaction of many governments to Omicron demonstrated the key point of the plan: the need for simple, predictable and practical means of living with the virus that are not constantly cut off from the world. We have seen that applying disproportionate measures to travelers has economic and social costs, but very limited public health benefits. We must aim for a future where international travel faces no more restrictions than visiting a store, attending a public meeting or riding a bus,” Walsh said.

IATA Travel Pass
The successful launch of the  IATA Travel Pass  continues with a growing number of airlines already using it in their daily operations to support validation of health credentials for travel.

“Whatever the rules for vaccination requirements, the industry will be able to manage them with digital solutions, led by the IATA Travel Pass. It is a mature solution that is being deployed in a growing number of global networks,” said Walsh.


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