All viruses change over time. Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists have been tracking changes in the COVID-19 code and at least 1,000 variants have been detected to date. But the coronavirus mutation discovered in the United Kingdom in December is estimated to be 56% more contagious.

In January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson instituted a national lockdown to combat the new COVID-19 variant. Citizens across England must remain at home; primary and secondary schools and colleges must close and implement online learning; and Scotland residents can go out for exercise but can only meet one person from another household. The new restrictions will reportedly remain in effect until at least mid-February; without it, Johnson said England’s health system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed.

Many countries prohibited passenger flights and/or travelers with travel originating in the UK or, like Canada and Mexico, extended prohibitions on nonessential travelers. But it was the holiday season, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) clocked in a record number of travelers since the beginning of the pandemic. Now countries — such as Canada, the UK and the United States — are requiring a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours before departure by any traveler, including returning residents.

“These new rules will have a chilling effect on international travel and further hurt an industry already brought to its knees.  Also, the rights of citizens to return to their home countries likely presents a myriad of citizens’ rights issues that need to be addressed,” said Daniel Richards, CEO of Global Rescue.

As 2021 gets underway, how will the new coronavirus strains affect travel and how can travelers stay safe?

The Natural Evolution of a Virus

The new strain of COVID-19 has been labeled B.1.1.7  and was first detected Sept. 21 in Kent County in England before spreading in November, according to the World Health Organization. Since then, it has become the most common variant in England, representing more than 50% of new cases diagnosed between October and Dec. 13 in the U.K.

In South Africa, a variant called 501.v2 is the dominant virus variant in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. It is accounting for almost 90% of new COVID-19 infections in the province of Western Cape. The variant in South Africa carries two other mutations in the spike protein which are not present in the U.K. strain. The worry is this strain might evade antibodies that fight coronavirus, a study recently found, and spread to other countries as quickly as the UK variant.

How to Stay Safe

According to Science magazine, these mutations don’t mean it’s time to panic. Some viruses, like measles and polio, have always been largely contained by their vaccine. The flu virus mutates every year and the annual flu vaccine, although it might not exactly match the current strain, still reduces the likelihood of catching the flu.

What will help reduce the risk of coronavirus and its variants? Staying the course with current social distancing measures, avoidance of large gatherings and the proper use of masks.

In October 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidelines, stating that spending 15 minutes with someone infected with the virus over the course of a day is considered a “close contact” and can be long enough for you to catch COVID from them. The previous definition of close contact meant spending 15 “consecutive minutes” within six feet of someone who’s infected with the coronavirus.

The CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask, washing hands and physically distancing in order to protect yourself and others — for the indefinite future.

Wear a Mask

COVID-19 is spread by various modes of transmission: droplets, airborne, contact and surface.

Wearing a mask can help block virus-carrying droplets when someone is breathing, coughing, sneezing, singing or speaking. Viral load peaks in the days before symptoms begin and, according to the CDC, asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infected wearers are estimated to account for more than 50% of transmissions.

The recommendations for wearing a mask have not changed with the new variants.

“We must continue our efforts to maintain social distancing, proper wear of prescribed face masks and keeping ourselves healthy,” said Dr. Claudia Zegans, medical director at Elite Medical Group.

Maintain Social Distancing

According to the CDC, limiting close face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

“Knowing the primary form of transmission is person to person, this means social distancing is the number one way to prevent transmission,” said Hannah Kirking, MD, medical epidemiologist in the division of viral diseases at CDC in an interview with the American Medical Association (AMA). “Person-to-person transmission is essentially when someone talks, speaks or coughs they create little droplets, and social distancing essentially limits your ability to be hit with anyone else’s droplet. If that droplet is either inhaled by someone or hits mucous membranes, that’s when transmission occurs. So the mainstay remains social distancing, which means keeping six feet from other people as well as minimizing the number of people that you come into contact with.”

Get Tested

With the pandemic playing out differently in each country, testing will help keep the virus from spreading. According to Skift, airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A) supports the CDC’s recommendation to mandate negative COVID-19 tests for all arriving international travelers. All of the large global U.S. carriers — including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — are members of A4A.

“In light of the increase in vaccinations, the question I get most often is will these variants be covered by the current vaccines,” said Dr. Eric Johnson, associate medical director at Global Rescue. “The tentative answer seems to be yes.”

“Travelers need three basics for trips abroad: an abundance of courtesy and respect for the protocols established in the destination they’re visiting, rigorous adherence to CDC guidelines, and medical evacuation protection just in case,” said Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue. “They should also collect their vaccination and health histories and be prepared to enter them in a digital health passport since many airlines and countries will be adopting this standard in the future.”

It may be a while before coronavirus fades into the background as a known travel risk but, until then, a travel protection services membership will help travelers navigate the complexities. Should an emergency occur and you require a higher level of care, Global Rescue medical and security experts can fully coordinate all aspects of ground and air evacuation in compliance with CDC regulations. Click here to learn more.