What is the latest situation in the Covid-19 pandemic and is antigen testing mandatory when entering countries?
With the upcoming holiday season and the removal of travel restrictions, the world is now facing novel upsurges in COVID-19 cases. Despite the emergence of new waves of infection and the circulation of new variants, many countries around the world have eased pandemic-related restrictions on travel. Still, pandemic regulations and restrictions regarding travelling vary significantly among different countries, states, and territories. Read along to learn more about the latest information on the emerging COVID-19 variants and the current state of travel restrictions around the world.
What are BA.4 and BA.5 variants?
The BA.4 and BA.5 variants were detected during horizon monitoring on April 4, 2022. Although research on the exact phylogeny and characteristics of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants is ongoing, here is what the data has revealed so far. According to the latest data, the BA.4 variant shares all but eight mutations/deletions with the BA.2 variant. Most remarkable of these alterations include a spike 69/70 deletion which allows the quicker and simpler identification of the variant by resulting in an S-gene target failure, and the L452R mutation, which is associated with high infectivity and pathogenicity. The BA.5 variant, with sample dates ranging from February 25 to March 25, 2022, has all but four of the identical mutations/deletions as the BA.4 variant, including the spike 69/70 deletion and the L452R mutation mentioned above.
How is BA.5 variants affecting COVID-19 cases worldwide?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the BA.5 subvariant as a “variant of concern” due to the global increase in the number of coronavirus cases caused by the variant. Infections are expected to rise this summer, according to experts at Germany’s top health agency. On June 9, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), reported that the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are developing faster than all other variants, and that the two could soon be responsible for the majority of the country’s cases.
As of now, the BA.5 subvariant is already responsible for 10% of current cases, which is twice as many as last week. In Portugal, BA.5 is responsible for 80% of new infections in total, and it also caused a minor wave in South Africa in May. On one hand, BA.5 subvariant is likely to be more transmissible and more difficult to detect with neutralizing antibodies compared to previous subvariants of the Omicron strain such as BA.2. Thankfully, on the other hand, similar to other Omicron subvariants, BA.5 causes milder disease compared to other COVID-19 strains including the Delta variant.
How is the pandemic currently affecting international travel?
Pandemic-related international travel restrictions vary among countries. Some countries around the world have lifted all restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, countries such as Turkey, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Serbia, Italy, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Iceland, Afghanistan, Yemen, Gabon, and Congo welcome travelers without any entry restrictions regardless of their vaccination status.
Many countries have also started to accept fully vaccinated travelers without additional testing or quarantine restrictions. For instance, international travelers with proof of full vaccination can enter Spain and France without undergoing testing or quarantine measures. The US, Canada, Brazil, India, and Australia also accept vaccination certificates without additional restrictions. However, passengers may be subject to certain measures depending on the policy of the state or territory of their arrival. Hence, make sure to check the testing and quarantine requirements applied by the state or territory of your arrival beforehand. Although several of these countries such as France and Spain also accept recovery certificates, these certificates are not accepted everywhere. In the US and Australia, the entry of unvaccinated travelers are restricted unless they meet a criteria for an exception, in which case they are allowed to enter with additional measures such as testing and quarantine. Thus, in many countries worldwide, unvaccinated travelers are required to undergo pre-departure testing, in some cases, along with additional testing and quarantine measures on arrival. Moreover, in Russia, pre-departure testing is required for entry regardless of the vaccination or recovery status of the passenger.
China and Japan apply stricter international travel restrictions. Foreign nationals are not allowed to enter China with a visa unless under certain exceptional conditions. Moreover, those who are allowed to enter are required to undergo mandatory pre-departure testing, along with mandatory testing and quarantine on arrival. Likewise, although certain exceptions apply, international travelers are not currently allowed to enter Japan. Further, fully vaccinated passengers are required to take a pre-departure test, use a mandatory health and location monitoring application along with their document of vaccination. In addition to these restrictions, unvaccinated travelers are also required to take a mandatory COVID-19 test and undergo mandatory quarantine on arrival.
The certificates and documents mentioned above are typically only valid within specific time periods and the validity period may vary around the world. For instance, the EU Digital COVID Certificate includes a vaccination certificate that is valid within 14-270 days following the last dose of primary vaccination or booster dose, a recovery certificate valid for 180 days following the date of the first positive PCR test result, or a test certificate valid for 72 hours with a negative PCR test result, and 24 hours with a negative antigen test result. Moreover, the accepted vaccines and diagnostic tests may also differ depending on the policy applied in the country, state, or territory of your arrival. For example, while Russia only accepts PCR tests, both rapid antigen tests and PCR tests are accepted within the EU.
What can you do for protection?
The duration between infection and the onset of symptoms is shorter in omicron variants than in delta variants — about three days on average. A simple two-dose vaccine against omicron infection does not provide optimal protection, but it does protect against severe cases of disease. A booster vaccine ensures the formation of more antibodies, providing greater protection.
Although omicron and its subtypes are often far milder than delta, serious symptoms can develop in rare circumstances. Furthermore, it is unclear what long-term effects an omicron infection can have. The spike protein region contains the majority of the mutations in the Omicron BA.5 variant. For quick antigen testing using SARS-CoV-2 spike protein as a target, this can limit sensitivity or result in non-functional assays. In terms of sensitivity and functionality, those that use nucleocapsid protein as a target, such as our RapidFor™ SARS-CoV-2 Rapid Antigen Test Kit, are less likely to be altered by mutations.