The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has welcomed a manual by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that provides governments a risk-based assessment tool testing programs that could alleviate quarantine rules.
The Manual on Testing and Cross Border Risk Management Measures is produced by the ICAO Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation (CAPSCA).
“Momentum is building in support of our call for systematic testing to safely re-open borders without quarantine measures,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
“ICAO, working with health authorities and industry, has produced a high-level framework. Health authorities are beginning to explore how testing could supersede quarantine to stop the cross-border spread of the virus. Encouraging results from testing pilot programs should now give states the confidence to move forward quickly.”
Testing—efficacy and performance
Pilot programs for Covid-19 testing of travellers are beginning to produce encouraging results proving their efficacy. The studies all point in the direction of testing being an efficient means to limit the spread of Covid-19 through air travel.
“Data show that systematic testing can reduce the risk of importing Covid-19 through travel to very low levels—not zero, but very low. Certainly in most cases it would reduce risk to levels that mean that arriving passengers are less likely to be infected than the local population and therefore do not add meaningfully to the prevalence of Covid-19 in most places. Efficiency will increase. Advances in technology are happening every day that will improve testing performance,” said de Juniac.
“Our mindset must be focused on managing the risks of the virus while maintaining the overall well-being of the population. That would be a shift from current government policies entirely focused on risk elimination until a vaccine is available and at any cost to people’s lives and livelihoods. Even with recent encouraging news, it will be well into 2021 before we can expect large scale vaccination,” he added.
“In the meantime, denying people the freedom of mobility will do irreparable damage to jobs and our way of life. Strategies with risk-based testing offer a pathway which can safely facilitate an economic revival benefitting from the rewards of a re-connected world. Governments could further reduce the risk by investing in effective contact tracing and health monitoring programs to quickly isolate any potential community transmission. And there could even be benefits to controlling the disease by large scale testing of travellers who are not displaying symptoms.”
Significant advances in testing technology will help governments implement testing for travellers without compromising the availability of tests directly related to the healthcare sector, particularly polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. For testing to be incorporated into the travel process it must be fast, accurate, scalable, easy to use and affordable. While IATA does not recommend a specific test type, laboratory reported accuracy for the rapid antigen test (RAT) does meet the aforementioned criteria. The Oxford/Public Health England study indicates 99.6% specificity along with very high sensitivity for RAT.
Testing is supported by travellers. An IATA survey revealed that 83% of people would not travel if it required quarantine. It also showed that some 88% of travellers would be willing to be tested if it enabled travel. The same survey also revealed that 65% believe that quarantine should not be necessary if someone tests negative for Covid-19.
“Public opinion supports Covid-19 testing. They see it as a far better option compared to quarantine which kills travel. And they feel comfortable that if you are tested and found negative you don’t need to quarantine,” said de Juniac.
IATA urges quick action by governments working with industry to implement a globally harmonized and systematic approach to Covid-19 testing in the travel process.
Travel essentially remains in lockdown. Each day that this situation is prolonged puts more jobs at risk and makes the road to recovery that much more difficult.
Implementation of a globally harmonized systematic testing regime for international travel would complement measures already well established to keep travellers safe. In June, ICAO published Take-off: Guidance for Air Travel through the Covid-19 Public Health Crisis which calls on governments to implement a multi-layered approach to sanitary measures throughout the travel process.
Mask-wearing is especially key to the Take-off requirements with a strong consensus among recently published studies of air travel and Covid-19 pointing toward the very low risk of inflight transmission (Harvard, TRANSCOM).
“Safety is at the core of aviation. This crisis has only reinforced that commitment. There has been an inspiring effort by governments, public health authorities and aviation entities to ensure safe operations even during this pandemic. ICAO’s Take-off guidelines are practical measures to deliver a safe public health environment from check-in to arrival. And the many advances on testing, including ICAO’s guidance, are what is needed to open borders while minimizing the risk of Covid-19 importation,” said de Juniac.
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