COVID-19: Should air travellers worry over new Omicron variant?

Since the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in China over a year ago, governments have imposed various restrictions, modifications and measures from one country to another to contain the spread of the virus.

With the discovery of the latest variant – Omnicron (B.1.1.529) which the WHO has described as a ‘virus of concern’ in South Africa on November 24, 2021, more concerns are being raised.

According the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus,

the epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterised by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.

As new variants of the virus keep coming, one sector that continues to feel the impact of movement restrictions is the travel sector.

As people move from countries with more cases and new variants, travel restrictions had been imposed and lifted afterwards following the reduction in the number of cases.

The travel sector again is back in the familiar territory due to growing concern over a new variant of coronavirus.

So, what is different about the new variant? Won’t the travel sector survive as it has with other variants in the past? Should travellers be more concerned with the new variant than ever before? These are the questions in the mind of many as South Africa battles with the most mutated variant of the virus discovered so far, ‘B.1.1.529’.

Read also: COVID-19: New variant of concern detected in South Africa, Botswana

What you need to know about B.1.1.529

The new variant has such a long list of mutations that it was described by one scientist as ‘horrific’, and some say it is the worst variant they have seen.

It is early days and the confirmed cases are still mostly concentrated in one province in South Africa, but there are indications it may have spread further.

B.1.1.529 has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which are worrying because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists have said.

South African scientists have detected more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, said the variant has baffled experts. “It has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected,” de Oliveira said.

In comparison, the Beta and Delta variant respectively have three and two mutations.

The variant has spread rapidly through the Gauteng province of South Africa, home to the economic hub Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.

As of Friday, about 50 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. The confirmed cases in Botswana and Hong Kong were detected among travellers from South Africa.

Concerns for air travel

It is only natural that governments will be wary of travellers from South Africa at this time as travel is the easiest and fastest means to spread the variant.

As expected, therefore, the development has triggered travel restrictions by a number of countries, including the UK, Israel, among others amid fears of transmission.

Sindy Foster, principal managing partner, Avaero Capital Partners told BusinessDay that it’s early days but swift action has been taken by the UK, Israel and some other countries to protect their populations from the new variant.

Nigeria removed South Africa from the restricted countries list in October 2021.

According to the federal government, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated in-bound travellers will be required to observe a mandatory 7-day self-isolation in addition to a COVID-19 PCR test on days 2 and 7 after arrival in Nigeria; and fully vaccinated in-bound travellers will not be required to observe the mandatory 7-day self-isolation but will be required to do a COVID-19 PCR test on day 2 of arrival in Nigeria (Fully vaccinated means: 2 completed or mixed doses of either AstraZeneca, Pfizer or Moderna vaccines; or a single dose of Johnson and Johnson vaccine).

“Because travellers from South Africa still have to provide a negative PCR test before arrival, and again on or before day 2, this provides some protection for the Nigerian population. If they are not fully vaccinated they will have to quarantine.

“I expect that Nigeria will monitor the situation closely before making any decisions about stopping travel or adding additional restrictions. The situation in the UK and Europe is different because of rising COVID cases and seasonal flu. They can’t risk another virulent outbreak at this time,” Foster said.

Impact on air travel

Experts say as countries clamp down on travels to South Africa and from South Africa, more countries may do the same and this will impact international travel as travel to and from South Africa is the second-highest in Africa after North Africa.

Olumide Ohunayo, an aviation analyst, thinks the British government was a bit hasty in its decision to clamp down on travel from South Africa as the new variant has just been discovered.

“If you look at the international traffic into Africa, South African air traffic is the second after the North African region. This will affect international travel within Africa. Nigeria is part of the travel in Africa and presently, the Lagos-South African route has not been vibrant since the discovery of COVID-19 and this will make things worse for airlines and other operators and businesses within the West and South African hemisphere,” Ohunayo said.

He explained that this ban from the British government, it might extend to other countries and this will affect international travel, as there will be a reduction in frequency and projections on travel recovery will now be affected.

“We may be back to what we went through in 2020. We cannot lock down the world again but sadly we have to accept that international travel still has a long way to recovery. This will slow down the contribution of aviation globally as a result of the low international travels,” Ohunayo said.

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