In guidance released on international travel in relation to the COVID-19 omicron variant, the World Health Organization (WHO) wrote Tuesday that people ages 60 and older should delay travel to “areas with community transmission.”
The agency said in a statement that while scientific research regarding the variant of concern is underway to understand its behavior, people who are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying – including those with comorbidities that present an increased risk of severe COVID-19 – “postpone” travel plans to those places.
“Persons who are unwell, or who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission,” the WHO wrote.
While not much is known about omicron, the variant has spread to 20 countries, with more than 200 cases reported.
Preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
“Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors, including where surges may take place,” the WHO said Monday. “The overall global risk … is assessed as very high.”
In response to these reports, world health leaders have taken drastic and controversial measures in an attempt to stop the spread – issuing travel restrictions despite pushback from the WHO and southern Africa, where omicron was first reported.
Since then, South African and U.S. scientists have reportedly been communicating in an effort to understand more about the new variant and the WHO commended South Africa and Botswana for their “speed and transparency.”
“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 organization noted.
All of this comes amidst a busy holiday travel season, during which the WHO said essential travel should be prioritized.
The agency instructed all travelers to remain vigilant for signs and symptoms of COVID-19, adhere to public health and social measures at all times regardless of vaccination status and get vaccinated against COVID-19 – which U.S. health leaders and the White House maintains is the best way to protect against omicron and other variants.
In addition, the WHO said countries should apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures, including a “multilayered risk mitigation approach” devised to “potentially delay and/or reduce the exportation or importation of the new variant.”
Alternatively, it warned that “blanket travel bans” would not prevent international spread and 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 [variant of concern],” the WHO advised.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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