The BA.2.86 or 'Pirola' COVID variant has been detected in 15 countries. Here's how to travel safely.
A new COVID variant has sparked a rise in hospitalisations and prompted governments to bring forward booster vaccines.
As we head into winter, are we likely to see the return of masks on planes? And how can travellers protect themselves against a fresh outbreak?
Here’s everything you need to know about the new Pirola variant.
Pirola: What is the new COVID variant?
The new BA.2.86 COVID variant - dubbed Pirola - is an offshoot of Omicron that is currently spreading in the US and Europe.
It was first identified in August and, as of 18 September, 137 cases have been sequenced in 15 countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.
The UK government emphasises that this is only a small number of cases. It is therefore yet to be seen how severe and transmissible this new variant is.
“There is so far no evidence to suggest that [BA.2.86] is more likely to make people seriously ill than other Omicron variants in circulation,” says Professor Susan Hopkins, the chief medical advisor for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Governments are monitoring and testing new variants, while developing vaccines to tackle them should they be needed.
What should you do if you experience symptoms of COVID?
The UK government advises that if you have symptoms of a respiratory infection and a high temperature, you should avoid contact with vulnerable people and stay at home if possible.
If you are unable to stay at home, you should follow guidelines to prevent transmission to others.
Over 65s, those in a clinical risk group and anyone living with someone who’s at risk are eligible for a booster vaccine in the UK ahead of the winter season.
France also launched a new vaccination campaign this week, urging vulnerable individuals to get another booster jab with the vaccines updated to tackle the latest circulating variants.
Should you start wearing a mask on planes and public transport again?
So far, airports and airlines have not reintroduced mask wearing requirements.
The CDC says tests have shown that the Pirola variant spreads in the same way as other variants. This means preventative measures like mask-wearing, hand washing and ventilation can reduce its spread.
If you are feeling unwell, the CDC advises home testing. In the US, households can receive four free at-home test kits from the government. Most European countries have dropped their free COVID test schemes for all residents except for vulnerable people, however.
In France, the government still recommends testing and avoiding contact with vulnerable people if you test positive for COVID. Germany recommends calling your doctor if you believe you may have COVID; they will then decide whether a test is necessary. Italy recommends that if you have symptoms such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing, you should remain at home and call your doctor if necessary.
If you cannot avoid travel, wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of COVID. If you choose to wear a mask, wear a high-quality one that fits well over your nose and mouth.
US CDC expands air travel testing
Beginning in November, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun expanding its testing of airport wastewater and voluntary nasal swabs beyond COVID-19.
The pilot programme will now test for flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as well, in order to detect any concerning patterns early on.
It is focusing on airports that serve as international travel hubs, including Boston Logan, John F Kennedy in New York, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington Dulles.
Do travel restrictions prevent the spread of COVID?
Research published in 2022 found that travel restrictions in the EU had little or no impact on the spread of Omicron.
Looking at the impact of pre-departure tests imposed by Italy and Finland in December 2021, the research carried out by Oxera and Edge Health found no discernible difference in the spread of the COVID-19 variant.
This is primarily because variants circulate widely before being identified - which is why WHO also cautioned against hasty travel bans.