By Orville Williams
Limiting access to travellers from certain countries and/or closing borders completely are some of the measures advised to countries like Antigua and Barbuda, amid the threat of the highly-contagious Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus.
The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) discussed these measures during a media briefing late this week, following confirmation that the variant has been sequenced by laboratories in Aruba, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico and St Martin.
The Delta variant, which was first detected in India, is said to be 40-60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant – first identified in the UK – which has been identified here in Antigua and Barbuda. It’s important to note that the Alpha variant was already said to be about 50 percent more transmissible than the original strain of the virus.
In the US, the Delta variant accounts for more than 20 percent off all Covid-19 cases, while it has also become the dominant strain in the UK, despite the high vaccination rate there.
Those countries are Antigua and Barbuda’s two biggest tourism source markets and the twin-island state is preparing to welcome an influx of travellers from both. What that confirms is that the threat of the dangerous Delta variant to the local population is very real.
Dr Ciro Ugarte, Director of Health Emergencies at PAHO, noted that the level of threat to each country within the region is different, given the capacity of the health systems, meaning these systems need to be assessed and then decisions made based on the outcome.
“Depending on the risk of transmission in the country, authorities may make decisions based on the capacity of the health system to do early detection of cases, to isolate suspects, to quarantine them and to treat patients in the different levels of the health system, especially taking into account the availability of hospital and [specifically] ICU beds.”
Following the assessment of the health systems, several options are on the table, including the complete restriction of movement.
“Complete closure of borders to prevent international travellers from coming and going [is one option]. Another option is limiting access from certain specific countries, considering that there is a higher proportion of the Delta variant or other variants circulating in those countries.
“Other measures [include] allowing access to travellers, but having surveilled isolation/quarantine, and in some cases, there can be just be [general] surveillance and reporting of passengers that arrive in the country”, Dr Ugarte added.
Given the urgent need for economic stimulation, it is highly unlikely that the Antigua and Barbuda government will move to suspend international travel to the country. In fact, officials have consistently talked up the capacity of the local health system to manage an outbreak of cases.
That capacity, however, was not in reference to the possibility of variants causing an outbreak, much less the Delta variant which has infectious disease experts very concerned.
Nonetheless, Dr Ugarte called on the countries where the new variants are rampant, to take the initiative and either limit travel from their territories to others, or “close down their borders”.
He said the decision needs to be made in consultation with the prospective receiving countries, but admitted that, “in any case, limiting [access] or closing borders does not guarantee that the variant won’t make it into the country”.
During the same discussion, PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne expressed confidence that the vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) will be relatively successful in staving off infections from the Delta and other variants.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is the sole vaccine being used at this point by the Health Ministry in the public vaccination programme, and reports are that two doses offer more than 90 percent protection against hospitalization from the Delta variant.
A single dose of the same vaccine, however, is said to be only around 33 percent effective against the Delta.