Travel world hopes Omicron is mild, but scientists warn it’s too early to tell

Omicron variant of COVID

The arrival of the Omicron variant has thrown the travel world into turmoil once again and while everyone wants to believe preliminary reports that the strain may be milder, the truth is that it’s really too early to know.

“The idea that this variant is milder is just pure speculation. There is no reason to think it is,” said Michael Worobey, who heads the department of evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in a CNN report.

In the same report, Dr. William Schaffner, medical director at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University said there simply hasn’t been enough time to know everything there is to know about Omicron.

“There’s a distinction between hopeful and reality. It’s good to hope but it is much too early to conclude that Omicron only produces mild infections. We don’t have those data,” Schaffner told CNN.

Even if it is milder, scientists believe Omicron could be more transmissible and overtake Delta as the most dominant strain which could end up overwhelming healthcare networks through the sheer number of infections.

As long as there remains a large pool of unvaccinated people around the world, the virus will continue to mutate and there are now reports that a “stealth” strain of Omicron may exist that is harder to detect. There is also evidence that the Omicron strain may be more resistant to Pfizer and other mRNA vaccines.

Despite the uncertainty, the travel industry is jumping on the hope that Omicron might just be a blip on the radar which is why investors are eying travel stocks as a buying opportunity.

“We view data coming out of the U.S. as a positive leading indicator for demand trends in Canada heading into the holiday season and 2022,” ATB said in a note to clients.

In the cruise world, news of the new variant hasn’t put a damper on Wave Season, the traditional selling period for the coming year, according to Travel News Report.

“My crystal ball broke about two years ago but I still see an extended wave season,” said Sean Schultz, owner of a Dream Vacations franchise in Daphne, Alabama.  “I don’t see demand dropping off at all. It may be a challenge for where people can go, but the demand is there.”

Despite that optimism, world governments have enacted travel restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.

While scientists in the United Kingdom are criticizing such restrictions as being too late to be useful, there is widespread support for them in Canada, according to a poll reported by the Canadian Press.

“Yes, this variant is concerning. Yes it will likely be more resistant to neutralization. But is this variant a monster? Probably not. ​​The vaccines will work against this variant,” said Marc-André Langlois, a molecular virologist at the University of Ottawa who heads the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network in a CBC report.

“To what extent? That’s the question.”



Canada reopening its borders to fully vaccinated international travellers


Despite evidence that a fourth wave of COVID infections is gathering steam in Canada , the country is going ahead with plans to allow fully vaccinated international travellers to enter the country for non-essential reasons, such as tourism, as of September 7, 2021.

The federal government says the decision to ease entry requirements is based on the latest available data, scientific evidence and epidemiological situation both in Canada and internationally.

According to a statement from the Canada Border Services Agency, as the volume of travellers has increased in recent months, the border test positivity rate has remained low. Between August 9 and 26, the positivity rate for fully vaccinated travellers randomly selected for testing at the border was 0.19% (112 positive tests out of 58,878 completed).

While cases are currently increasing in Canada, the CBSA noted that illness severity and hospitalization rates remain manageable as Canada’s vaccination rates continue to rise.  This data along with continued adherence to public health measures by Canadians and incoming travellers, means that Canada is better able to prevent outbreaks of infection and can now allow more incoming fully vaccinated travellers without increasing the risk to the health and safety of Canadians.

The new rules will apply as of 12:01 a.m. EDT on September 7, 2021 and airports like Toronto’s Pearson are warning travellers to expect delays as they cope with the expected influx of visitors.

“We do expect to see an increase in international travellers as a result of this change, and we’ll continue working with our agency partners and airlines to best manage the flow of passengers,” the Greater Toronto Airport Authority told CTV News.

The GTAA said that  international travellers arriving at Pearson should prepare for the arrivals process to take one to three hours, or even longer, due to new COVID-19 screening measures that involves clearing the Canada Border Services Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada screening process.

According to the CBSA, fully vaccinated foreign nationals won’t need to submit to a COVID-19 test on arrival or enter quarantine, but they must meet these criteria in order to enter Canada:

  • Be fully vaccinated: a traveller must have received, and show proof of, the full series of a vaccine — or combination of vaccines — accepted by the Government of Canada at least 14 days prior to entering Canada. Currently, those vaccines are manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD, and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson)
  • Have a valid pre-arrival COVID-19 molecular test result taken no more than 72 hours before their scheduled flight or their arrival at the land border crossing, or a previous positive test result taken between 14 and 180 days before departure to Canada.  Antigen tests, often called “rapid tests” are not accepted
  • Be asymptomatic
  • Submit their mandatory information via ArriveCAN (App or website), including proof of vaccination in English or French and a quarantine plan
  • Be admissible under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
  • Be willing to take a COVID-19 test on arrival, if selected

While Canada will welcome foreign tourists as of Sept. 7, Ottawa continues to advise Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside of the country because international travel increases a person’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 and its variants, as well as of spreading it to others.

For fully vaccinated parents or guardians travelling with unvaccinated children under 12 years of age, the children are exempt from quarantine, but must follow enhanced public health measures, which includes not attending daycare or school for 14 days.

Unvaccinated children between the ages of 12-17 and dependent children 18 or older (due to a mental or physical condition) are permitted to enter Canada, but are subject to the 14-day quarantine.

All unvaccinated children (except those under 5 years of age) will remain subject to day 1 and day 8 testing requirements. Provinces and territories may have more stringent rules for people who have recently returned from travel.

For those who are not vaccinated, there are no changes to testing and quarantine requirements. Only those who are eligible to enter Canada such as those entering by right – Canadian citizens, permanent residents and persons registered under the Indian Act, can cross the border, but they remain subject to quarantine, all testing requirements (pre-arrival, upon arrival/day 1 and on day 8) and the mandatory submission of travel, contact and quarantine information via ArriveCAN.

Direct commercial and private passenger flights from India and Morocco are temporarily suspended.

Kayak map charts international travel restrictions by country

Kayak travel restrictions map

Confused about which countries you can travel to during the COVID-19 pandemic? Everyone is because the rules are constantly changing with the shifting rates of infection and vaccination around the world.

Kayak has created a useful, colour-coded map that quickly illustrates which countries are open, which have some restrictions and which are totally off limits.

The tool is useful for anyone as you can set your country of origin and it updates the map depending on where you are travelling from.

As I write this, only a handful of countries are fully open to Canadian travellers, but there are plenty of places that will let you in with enough testing and quarantining if you are truly determined to go there.


Visitors to Canada reminded that non-essential travel is still forbidden

Canada-U.S. border crossing

Even as Canada relaxes quarantine rules for vaccinated citizens on Monday, the Canada Border Services Agency is warning would-be travellers that they still aren’t allowed to enter the country for non-essential reasons.

“If you were unable to come to Canada on July 4 of this year, you can’t come in on July 5 — there’s been no change to all of the restrictions and the provisions that have been issued on that front,” Denis Vinette, CBSA vice-president, travellers branch told the CBC.

“I think we can expect, certainly in the early days, individuals believing that, you know, July 5 is here, Canada is now open for tourism, recreation and things of that nature. That is not the case,” said Vinette.

Most foreign visitors to Canada come from the United States (15 million of the 22 million total foreign visitors in 2019)  and mutual travel restrictions between the two countries will remain in place until at least July 21.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given no hints as to whether or not the restrictions will be lifted by then.

“When we start reopening so Americans and others who are fully vaccinated can come into Canada will depend on how this goes — on the data we collect, on how we’re able to keep Canadians safe even as we make adjustments to the rules,” he stated.

Previously, Canadian officials have indicated that they would like 75 per cent of eligible Canadian residents to be fully vaccinated before easing border restrictions. Ottawa has said that it expects to have enough vaccine delivered for 80 per cent of eligible Canadians to be fully vaccinated by the end of July. As of July 1, slightly more than 35 per cent of the eligible Canadian population was fully vaccinated.

According to statistics cited in a USA Today report, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that each month the border is closed costs US$1.5 billion.

Delta variant is putting a damper on travel in Europe

Street scene in Bruges

Don’t look now, but the Delta variant of the coronavirus is putting the brakes on the restart of travel, especially in Europe.

Portugal, Spain and Germany are among the first nations to initiate new travel restrictions in a bid to limit the spread of the more contagious variant which was first detected in India, reported Euronews.

Portugal is the first European Union nation to announce that the more transmissible Delta variant was now dominant on its territory. In Germany, the number of delta-variant cases has doubled in a week, said a Reuters report.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Portugal last week for allowing British tourists to travel to the country between mid-May and early June, while the Delta variant was circulating in the U.K.

As of Monday, anyone travelling to mainland Portugal will have to prove they have been fully vaccinated or have to isolate for two weeks.

Turkey is also limiting flights to some countries over concern about the variant, according to a TRT World report.

Meanwhile, hopes for a travel corridor between the United States and Great Britain this summer seem to be dwindling, officials told the Financial Times on Monday, partially due to the rise of the Delta variant in the U.K.

FT said the talks for the corridor would likely extend into August and even September and are further complicated by the fact that the U.S. has yet to approve the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine which has been widely used in the U.K.

It’s not just Europe that is throwing up new measures to slow the spread of the new variant. In Israel, which is the most highly vaccinated country in the world against COVID, they have delayed the entry of individual tourists until at least August 1.

In Australia, which had seemingly eradicated the virus causing COVID, 80 per cent of the country’s population is now under lockdown due to a sudden rise in the Delta variant. The country also sits dead last in the OECD for vaccination against the virus with less than five per cent of its population fully vaccinated.

Because the Delta variant is spreading at such a fast rate, scientists say that the race against the virus could be lost unless countries seriously ramp up their immunization campaigns and increase their vigilance against the disease.

“This is the problem with hanging everything on vaccines until you’ve got something near a population immunity threshold … you need a much higher coverage to protect against a variant that’s more transmissible,”  Dr. Stephen Griffin, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Leeds school of medicine told The Guardian.

“It just speaks to the fact that we really, really must keep cases down at the same time as rolling the vaccines out.”

The same report stated that research in Australia indicates that the Delta variant can be spread in “scarily fleeting” encounters. In two cases, it was transmitted within five to 10 seconds of people walking past each other in an indoor shopping area.