Wednesday October 20, 2021

India has no plans for booster dose; WHO unveils pandemic pathogen sleuth squad; Congo bans weddings; US to open land borders to vaccinated travellers

October 14, 2021

Washington: The United States will open its land borders with Mexico and Canada in early November to non-essential travellers who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a senior White House official announced on Wednesday.

The official said the administration would give the "precise date very soon" -- both for land crossings as well as international air travel, which would be timed to "go together."

The United States had already announced in September that it would lift bans in November on all vaccinated air passengers who undergo testing and contact tracing.

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, US borders were closed in March 2020 to travelers coming from the European Union, Britain and China, with India and Brazil added to the list later. Overland visitors from Mexico and Canada were also banned.

The nearly 19 months of restrictions led to both personal and economic suffering. The White House source said the land border re-opening would happen in two phases.

Initially, vaccines will be required for "non-essential" trips -- such as visiting family or tourism -- though unvaccinated travelers will still be allowed into the country for "essential" trips as they have been for the last year and a half.

A second phase beginning in "early January" 2022 will require all visitors to the United States to be fully vaccinated, no matter the reason for their trip.

"This phased approach will provide ample time for essential travelers such as truckers or others to get vaccinated, enabling a smooth transition to the new system," the official said.

The new schedule means the land border restrictions, which are currently set to expire on October 21, would have to be extended one more time before the new rules enter into force, the official indicated.

The senior official pointed to recent recommendations from US health authorities for guidance on which vaccines would allow travelers entry.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last week that all vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) would be accepted for entry by air, the official pointed out. "While the CDC hasn’t made a final determination here, I anticipate that that would be the same for land travel as well," the official said, explaining that the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not administered in the United States, would be accepted. The rule change will only apply to legal land crossings into the country, the official said.

"Title 42" -- the controversial Trump-era rule continued by the Biden administration which allows those crossing illegally to be deported for public health reasons -- will remain in place, the official said.

The White House cited Title 42 when thousands of Haitians gathered along the US-Mexico border were deported last month, with critics saying the law unfairly restricts those seeking asylum.

The White House official said Tuesday that details were still being sorted to allow vaccinated air travelers to enter the United States, including plans on how to undertake contact tracing on such visitors. Passengers will also be tested for the coronavirus, the official said.

Meanwhile, India currently has no plans to give booster doses as some nations have begun doing, the government’s chief Covid-19 advisor said on Wednesday as the country nears the milestone of one billion vaccine injections.

Doctor Vinod K. Paul said meanwhile with the country’s vaccine makers ramping up production and domestic needs diminishing, India should be able to resume being a major exporter of jabs from next year.

More than 15 countries worldwide have begun issuing third doses of coronavirus vaccines to older citizens, including in Israel and in European Union nations such as France, Italy and Germany.

In a rlated development, the World Health Organisation unveiled on Wednesday a proposed team of scientists tasked with looking at new pathogens and preventing future pandemics -- plus reviving the stalled probe into Covid-19’s origins.

The group of 26 experts will be charged with producing a new global framework for studies into the origins of emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential. Their remit includes SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes Covid-19 disease. Besides the Covid-19 crisis, a growing number of high-risk pathogens have appeared or reappeared in recent years, including MERS, bird flu viruses, Lassa, Marburg and Ebola.

The WHO announced earlier this year that it would set up a Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO).

"The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Meantime, The Republic of Congo on Wednesday announced a 45-day ban on weddings, a move that it said would help to stem the spread of coronavirus.

"Ceremonies for civil, religious and traditional marriages and dowries are being suspended for a duration of 45 days," the communications minister, Thierry Moungalla, said in a statement read on public television.

The Central African country, also known as Congo-Brazzaville to distinguish it from the far larger Democratic Republic of Congo, is facing a third wave of the virus, he said, citing its national anti-Covid team.

"This extremely concerning and serious situation stems greatly from a widespread decline by the public in following distancing measures," he said.