IATA Calls for Easing of Travel Restrictions, Prioritizing Vaccinations

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) this week pleaded with governments worldwide to relax their travel restrictions “as COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage.”

IATA in a statement called for the removal of all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a World Health Organization (WHO)-approved vaccine, enabling quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travelers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result, removing travel bans and accelerating the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travelers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.

To that end, Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, noted how travel bans in response to the discovery of the Omicron variant “have not worked.” He added, “Today, Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations. The billions spent testing travelers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems.”

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

  • If the U.K.’s extra measures (replacing the requirement for an antigen test within two days of arrival with a requirement for a pre-departure antigen test and post-arrival PCR test with isolation until the results are available) with respect to Omicron had been in place from the beginning of November (prior to the identification of the variant), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with 3 percent fewer cases.
  • The absence of any testing measures for travelers would have seen the Omicron wave peak seven days earlier with an overall 8 percent increase in cases.
  • Now that Omicron is highly prevalent in the U.K., if all travel testing requirements were removed there would be no impact on Omicron case numbers or hospitalizations in the U.K.

For its part, in regard to COVID-19, the WHO Emergency Committee called for countries to “lift or ease international traffic bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress.”

Walsh noted that the Migration Policy Institute has counted more than 100,000 travel measures globally “that create complexity for passengers, airlines and governments to manage.” He said that “all indications point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition—one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with,” adding, “that’s why travelers should not be subject to any greater restrictions than are applied to the general community.”

IATA’s solution to barrier-free travel is based on vaccination priorities. Issues to address include:

  • Accepted Vaccines: There is no universal recognition for all vaccines on the WHO Emergency Use list. This raises a barrier to travel as people have little choice on the range of vaccines available in their country.
  • Validity: There is no alignment on the length of vaccine validity. 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 get regular booster jabs to travel internationally will consume resources that could support primary vaccination in the developing world and booster doses for the most vulnerable.
  • Distribution Priorities: The calls of WHO and health experts for vaccine equity are not universally prioritized. Only half the states in Africa have been able to vaccinate more than 10 percent of their populations, while many developed countries are reducing vaccination validity and considering second rounds of boosters. This creates a barrier to travel and strains testing resources in parts of the world where vaccine distribution is less advanced.

For more information, visit www.iata.org.

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