Global financial markets went through a downward frenzy on Friday following the revelation that the Omicron variant has been identified in many countries. The panic extended to international travel as dozens of countries banned nationals from Southern Africa to try to slow the spread of this new variant of concern. Israel and Japan went several steps further, temporarily closing their borders to all international travelers due to Omicron. Switzerland instituted mandatory quarantines for visitors from any country confirming Omicron within its borders, a list that will certainly grow in the days ahead.
As an international travel risk manager, my role is to sift through the panic and the noise and make sound recommendations for my clients as they plan their long-awaited return to overseas travel. My early analysis looks at “what we know” and “what we don’t know” and then compares to the four benchmarks I have been using over the past several months to help clients assess potential destinations.
What we know:
- We know with absolute certainty that Omicron looks different than previous strains of COVID-19 because there are many more mutations on the spike protein.
- We know with a high degree of certainty that Omicron spreads as fast or faster in unvaccinated populations than the Delta variant that led to the massive third wave of COVID that started in India in the spring and reached the United States in late summer.
- We know with a high degree of certainty that Omicron is already in most countries with travel connections to Southern Africa (that is, almost every country in the world) even if a country has not yet reported cases. (At the time of posting on November 30, there have been no reported cases in the United States. If Vegas is taking bets, it is a safe wager that by December 2 the U.S. will acknowledge cases here.)
- We know with absolutely certainty that countries are beginning to impose travel restrictions that could significantly impact visitors. Anyone planning early December trips to Israel or Japan or Switzerland or (fill in the blank over the next several days) will be forced to change plans.
What we don’t know: There are several important things we don’t know.
- We don’t know with absolute certainty whether Omicron will cause more severe illness, hospitalizations or deaths than Delta or earlier forms of COVID-19. Early reports from South Africa seem to indicate that illness/hospitalizations are not worse than previous strains, but most current cases are among a younger population.
- We don’t know with any degree of certainty whether Omicron is more transmissible than Delta in highly vaccinated populations.
- And we don’t know with any degree of certainty whether Omicron will evade vaccines (in other words, am I — being fully vaccinated in March and having a Moderna booster in October — at similar risk of getting Omicron variant than those who are unvaccinated?).
Increasing the certainty on all three of these points is important to assess both the safety and availability of international travel. The encouraging news is that scientists expect to have clarity on many of the points above in the next two to three weeks.
My four benchmarks: Since the late summer surge of Delta in the U.S., I have been talking with clients about four benchmarks that I use to assess travel to international destinations. These benchmarks are still on-point in assessing travel options during Omicron.
- The rate of vaccination in a country or region. Much of Europe is in a “fourth wave” of COVID-19 right now, with the Delta variant again driving numbers higher. But you can see significant differences in the size and pace of the wave based on how vaccinated a country is. Austria (67% fully vaccinated), Germany (69%), Czech Republic (60%), and Slovakia (40%) are among the countries with the most rapid rates of COVID-19 increases over the past month – setting new all-time records for cases. On the other hand, the highest vaccinated continental European countries Spain (80%) and Portugal (87%) are seeing much slower growth in their fourth wave. (This, by the way, does not bode well for the United States this winter given we have only 59% of our population fully vaccinated.) The implication is that choosing a highly vaccinated country is generally going to be a better bet for travelers. Aside from Spain and Portugal, the seven other countries that 80% or more vaccinated are UAE, Singapore, Malta, Chile, Cuba, Cambodia and Brunei.
- The COVID curves. Understanding a country’s current COVID curve represents a second important benchmark. Over the next couple of months, it may be difficult to find countries that have a declining curve. But they do exist. Brazil is clearly in decline after its peak in July. Argentina daily cases are very low after its peak in May and June. With southern hemisphere heading into summer, it may make sense to look to South America for travel options. Other warmer northern hemisphere may be good options too. The curves in UAE, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Aruba all have curves that look good right now.
- Quality of healthcare. I use a variety of measures to assess healthcare of a given country. There are certain places that I am reluctant to send travelers to right now, even if the current COVID curves look good. If you travel to a country with excellent healthcare, even if they are in a COVID spike, most healthy, vaccinated travelers will still be fine if they get coronavirus. The likely worst case will be quarantining overseas and a delayed return home. Yes, that can be a huge inconvenience, but compared to getting COVID in a country with poor healthcare, that’s a trade-off I would be happy to make.
- Predictability of entry/exit/quarantine rules. This may turn out to be the biggest Omicron wildcard. This past week, two of my assessments from late summer/early fall have been proven true. I have told clients that planning travel to Israel is tricky because they are the most likely country to change their travel rules without warning. Sure enough, last week they reinstituted a lockdown on international visitors. My other assessment was that barring a new variant of concern, the European Union was unlikely to tighten travel restrictions. And this held true, when the Omicron revelations last week led to travel bans across the EU for travelers from Southern Africa. Other countries more likely to reinstitute broader travel bans include Chile, which is great on all the other benchmarks, but has been one of the most conservative countries in terms of loosening travel restrictions. Also Australia and New Zealand are likely to delay their scheduled 1st quarter reopenings if Omicron proves to be problematic. Countries less likely to institute travel restrictions include Costa Rica, Mexico, most of the Caribbean, and United Arab Emirates.
As you can see, there is a lot of information to process and there will be new data every day. I am happy to help you sift through the “knowns”, “unknowns” and “benchmarks” based on your personal situation and risk/safety thresholds, as you begin to think about a safe return to international travel.