The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the agency is increasing COVID-19 testing at four U.S. airports in an effort to stop the spread of the Omicron variant as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that certain vulnerable groups stop traveling.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Dr Rochelle Walensky said the CDC’s biosurveillance program is being expanded to airports, including those that have direct flights to South Africa.
Three of the four airports – New York-John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and San Francisco International Airport in California – have already been enrolled in the program but were expanded to survey for Omicron.
The program is now being extended to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in Georgia, where Delta Air Lines operates three flights a week from Johannesburg.
It comes as the WHO suggested at-risk groups, including those above age 60, should not travel in the wake of the new variant.
SCROLL DOWN FOR VIDEO
At the briefing, Walensky said testing and surveillance is being expanded to ‘four of the busiest international airports in the country.’
XpresCheck, a health company running the program with the CDC, offers two different COVID-19 tests for those aged five and older: a rapid test that gives results within 15 minutes and a PCR test that gives results in one to three days.
‘CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including critical partner testing closer to the time of flights and considerations around additional post arrival testing and self-quarantine,’ Walensky said at the briefing.
‘This program allows for increased Covid testing for specific international arrivals, increasing our capacity to identify those with COVID-19 on arrival to the United States and enhancing our surveillance for the Omicron variant.’
The CDC initially launched a program to screen passengers between late January and early September.
However, it was shut down after just nine cases were detected among more than 766,000 travelers.
Instead, the U.S. already requires all international travelers coming into the US to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in order to enter the country.
Additionally, a pilot program was launched in September at a select few airports, aimed at identifying existing and new variants.
The Omicron variant has 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein, used by the coronavirus to enter and infect cells.
By comparison, the Delta variant had two mutations on the spike protein.
Early evidence suggests it is more transmissible than previous variants but it is unclear if it causes more severe illness or death.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the WHO spoke out against blanket travel bans, saying they would not prevent international spread of Omciron
The European Union, the UK and the U.S. imposed travel bans to and from South Africa and certain surrounding countries.
‘Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,’ the WHO wrote.
‘In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.
Instead, the agency recommended that specific vulnerable groups delay traveling.
‘Persons who are unwell or at risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes), should be advised to postpone travel,’ the statement read.