Discussion: The omicron variant and holiday travel

Security forces stand guard inside an airport terminal in Rabat, Morocco

Many people around the world are debating whether or not to travel this holiday season. The new omicron variant of COVID-19 has contributed to surges in places like South Africa, and scientists have been scrambling to study its effects and transmissibility. New clues are coming out each day, but definitive answers will take more time.

The variant was first reported in Southern Africa — setting off a series of travel bans from the region — but medical experts say it’s not clear where the variant originated. Cases were later identified  in other parts of the world, which turned out to be present prior to the bans.

The UK and Denmark saw a spike in omicron cases over the weekend, and the variant has appeared in at least 57 nations worldwide.

Related discussion: Children’s mental health during COVID

Some governments, like the UK, are now considering further lockdowns over the next few weeks to stem the spread of the pandemic and its impact on hospitals.

The US has imposed stricter rules, requiring international travelers to take a COVID-19 test within 24 hours of boarding a flight to the US, regardless of their vaccination status — a shift from having to provide a negative test within three days of traveling.

And airlines are extending their requirements for wearing masks until March 18, a rule that was set to expire in mid-January.

South Africa is seeing a fourth wave in cases, and President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that the country is preparing its hospitals for more admissions.

Related discussion: The challenges of vaccinating people in conflict zones

Meanwhile, many communities around the world are continuing to struggle with cases from delta, the  coronavirus variant that is dominant in most of the world.

And many nations are strengthening restrictions and vaccination rules, like in Italy and Iran, in order to travel or enter public spaces.

To understand omicron, new travel restrictions and how people can better prepare for the upcoming festive season, reporter Elana Gordon moderated a discussion with Stephen Kissler — who is a research fellow in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — as part of The World’s regular series of conversations about the pandemic.

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