By Orville Williams
As much of the world anxiously awaits more information on the new Omicron Covid-19 variant, the Antigua and Barbuda government is taking steps to protect the local population from potential imported infections.
The Omicron variant was detected by scientists in South Africa last week and the World Health Organization (WHO) has already designated it a variant of concern, due to concerns about its transmissibility, its virulence and the possibility of immune evasion.
Since then, confirmed cases of the variant have been reported in at least 24 countries and many have moved to restrict travel from South Africa and some other affected nations.
Antigua and Barbuda is one of those countries to implement such restrictions, with travel from Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and South Africa to the twin island nation currently forbidden.
When announcing the travel restrictions last weekend, Health Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph also noted that government would keep a keen eye on the developments in the US and the UK – Antigua and Barbuda’s biggest tourism source markets – with the fact that Omicron is already in the UK a reason for concern.
The first case involving the new variant was confirmed in the US state of California on Wednesday.
Following the travel restrictions, perhaps the government’s second most significant response to the uncertainty surrounding Omicron is the reversion to requiring strictly PCR tests from fully vaccinated incoming travellers. From December 8, only PCR tests no more than three days old can be used for entry into Antigua and Barbuda.
The travel requirements were relaxed last month, to allow travellers the cheaper option of a rapid antigen test for entry, but Information Minister Melford Nicholas told yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing that the threat of Omicron meant that regime had to be adjusted.
“This is an extra measure that we have put in place to ensure that we have the utmost confidence in the level of security that is prior to someone making the determination to come to Antigua.
“There is a higher level of confidence that is associated with a PCR test over and above any of the available antigen tests,” he explained.
Persons travelling to Antigua are not the only ones who could be affected by the government’s actions, as the lifting of the ongoing state of emergency (SOE) – that allows for the restriction of movement via the nightly curfew – may be delayed, due to the threat posed by Omicron.
The government had previously announced that the SOE could be lifted earlier than the scheduled December 27, with December 23 stated as the new date.
The final decision will be made on December 15, when the Parliament convenes, but Nicholas warned that even if it is lifted, it could be reimposed at a later time if the threat of Omicron increases to an unwanted level.
The minister also spoke on the country’s testing capacity, acknowledging that it may not be prepared to accommodate the Omicron variant.
He, however, reaffirmed the government’s confidence in the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to support testing for the variant where required, despite the likely pressure that would befall the agency if the variant were to invade the region.