The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued travel advice from WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. The group’s announcement noted an increasing number of countries are introducing temporary travel measures announcement regarding the COVID-19 variant Omicron, including temporarily prohibiting the arrival of international travelers from Southern African countries and others where the new variant is being detected, including from South Africa, which first reported the variant to WHO on 24 November 2021.
WHO commends South Africa and Botswana for their capacities in surveillance and sequencing and for the speed and transparency with which they notified and shared information with the WHO Secretariat on the Omicron variant in accordance with the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR). These actions have allowed other countries to rapidly adjust their response measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. WHO calls on all countries to follow the IHR (2005) and to show global solidarity in rapid and transparent information sharing and in a joint response to Omicron (as with all other variants), leveraging collective efforts to advance scientific understanding and sharing the benefits of applying newly acquired scientific knowledge and tools.
As noted in the WHO announcement, the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant as compared to other VOCs. Current SARS-CoV-2 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostics continue to be effective in detecting this variant. A technical brief on the latest information on Omicron can be found here.
It is expected that the Omicron variant will be detected in an increasing number of countries as national authorities step up their surveillance and sequencing activities. WHO is closely monitoring the spread of the Omicron variant, and studies are ongoing to understand more about these mutations and their impact on transmissibility, virulence, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. The TAG-VE will continue to evaluate the Omicron variant, and WHO will communicate new findings with IHR States Parties and the public as needed.
While scientific research is underway to understand how the variant behaves, WHO advises the following:
- Countries should continue to apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures in accordance with the IHR, including the latest Temporary Recommendations issued by the WHO Director-General on 26 October 2021 following the 9th Emergency Committee for COVID-19 and as recommended in the documents WHO policy and technical considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to international travel in the context of COVID-19 issued in July 2021.
- National authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered risk mitigation approach to potentially delay and/or reduce the exportation or importation of the new variant. Such measures may include screening of passengers prior to travelling and/or upon arrival, including via the use of SARS-CoV-2 testing or the application of quarantine to international travellers. These measures, nonetheless, need to be defined following a thorough risk assessment process informed by the local epidemiology in departure and destination countries and by the health system and public health capacities in the countries of departure, transit and arrival. All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers’ dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the IHR (2005).
- Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data. All countries should ensure that the measures are regularly reviewed and updated when new evidence becomes available on the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of Omicron or any other VOC.