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What is the Omicron Variant and How Will it Affect Travel?

Many travelers are beginning to panic. They have heard announcements about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and they are concerned about how it will affect their travel plans. 

While Omicron is new, not much is known about it yet.

Some countries are taking precautions against it, but the truth is that no one knows how transmissible it is or how dangerous it is.

That research will be forthcoming over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here’s what travelers need to know about Omicron when it comes to their travel plans.

What is a Variant?

Viruses function by invading the body. Specifically, they are tiny invaders that take over cells, then copy themselves so they can take over more and more cells. 

This copying, or replication, takes place quickly and does not have a robust system for check to ensure that replication is accurate. 

Thus, mistakes can be made during the replication process. These mistakes get called “mutations”.

When a virus has some mutations but has not mutated so much that it is a different virus, it is called a “variant”.

The Omicron Variant

The Omicron variant is the latest variant of COVID-19 to be discovered. It has been called a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (the WHO).

In and of itself, this does not mean much. It simply means that experts are looking into the virus to determine how dangerous it might (or might not!) be.

The Omicron variant was first detected using equipment in South Africa, though the cases being tested may have actually originated in Botswana.

Omicron has now been found in several European countries, Canada, China, Japan, and Australia.

Health officials have indicated that it is likely present in the United States, though it has not been sequenced there at this time.

The variant shows mutations on the spike protein part of the virus, which is the part used to infiltrate human cells.

It has a larger number of mutations than some of the other variants, though the exact number is yet to be determined.

This number can also change based on whether Omicron is being compared to the Delta variant or to another strain.

Initial research indicates that the Omicron variant may be more infectious and easier to pass to other people than some other variants. However, this is not yet known for sure.

Researchers around the world are working 24 hours a day to learn more about Omicron. As they learn more, travelers will know how worried they need to be about this variant.

Will it Affect Travel?

Omicron will definitely affect travel. In fact, it is already affecting travel to and from some locations.

Many countries around the world are restricting or prohibiting travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. 

Some are including other countries in that mix, as the Omicron variant is detected in more and more places. A few countries, like Japan, are closing down to international visitors entirely.

Right now, travelers need to check their travel plans against the data that is most recently available. 

Since this is a fast-moving situation where things can change quickly, they need to update their information regularly. New travel bans can go into effect at any time.

Travelers who are outside their home country need to make sure that they will be allowed back in when they return. They may need to return early in order to avoid a travel ban.

Others may need to find medium- to long-term accommodations where they are. If they cannot return home, they may have to remain in another country indefinitely.

Most airlines, hotels, and other hospitality businesses will allow for trip cancellations due to COVID-19 shutdowns.

Each traveler or group will need to take the responsibility to change their own travel plans, though.

What Travelers Need to Know About Omicron

Right now, travelers need to be aware of Omicron. They also need to know that this is a situation where things can change drastically and very fast. 

Because researchers don’t know much about this new mutation yet, there’s not much that can be said for sure.

Some travelers may want to change their travel plans, just to be safe. These changes may or may not be refundable/reimbursable.

However, travelers need to do what is best for themselves and their travel party.

Travelers who do not choose to cancel their trips will need to monitor the situation closely.

If research comes out that indicates Omicron may be highly transmissible or dangerous, shutdowns and travel bans will be implemented quickly.

If this happens, travelers will need to be ready to pivot on a moment’s notice. They need to know that their plans may change and that the situation is not entirely under their control.

As long as they have the flexibility to make these kinds of changes, they can continue making travel plans or keep the plans they have already made.

If they are unable to be flexible, they should cancel now and reschedule when the situation stabilizes

The Omicron variant is a cause for concern for travelers, but it need not derail all plans. Travelers should decide what to do based on what is best for them.

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