With the onset of the typically busy end-of-year travel season coinciding with the rapid spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, passengers are navigating the latest changes to COVID regulations.
At least 50 million people worldwide are projected to be travelling on international flights during the season, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Most countries require pre-travel COVID testing and vaccination certificates for entry. The discovery last month in southern Africa of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, which has since been detected in at least 89 countries, has led to tighter curbs on travel.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta strain and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or those who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease.
Many countries and airlines require passengers to present a negative PCR test result within 48-72 hours before boarding a flight. In some countries, a pre-and post-departure rapid test is required to be taken at the airport, in addition to the pre-travel PCR.
For entry into the United States, travellers need to show evidence of a negative COVID test (PCR or Antigen) no more than one day before the departure date.
Types of COVID tests
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is considered the gold standard for diagnosing viruses and bacteria.
A PCR test is an inexpensive way to quickly analyse a small amount of DNA. The test is conducted by a nasal or throat swab to determine the presence of COVID-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA).
When a sample reaches a lab, a reagent solution is added. The reagent starts a chain reaction in which copies of genetic material in the virus are created. This enables the identification of the virus.
PCR tests are generally considered to produce highly accurate results.
Rapid antigen test
Rapid antigen tests, or lateral flow antigen tests, involve swabbing the nasal cavity, placing the swab in a vial of solution, and then squeezing drops of the solution onto a small strip.
Most rapid antigen test results are available within 15-30 minutes. Some countries and airlines require rapid tests on departure and arrival in addition to the PCR test.
This test does not detect the present status of the virus – it can only show if a person has had the virus, and what IgG antibodies were created during the exposure of the viral load and infection.
The IgG Quantitative Antibody Test is conducted by a finger-prick blood sample, similar to checking blood glucose levels. This test should be conducted 15 days after exposure.
The price of COVID tests
The prices of COVID tests vary greatly from country to country, depending on the types of tests needed, the departure point and the destination and the test provider.
For international travel from the United States, a certified practitioner or laboratory can issue a COVID test certificate for fit to travel. In the US, a private COVID test pre-travel PCR test that gives same-day results can cost $375, but there are also many free options across the country.
In the United Kingdom, a clinic or laboratory approved by the Public Health authority can issue a fit-for-travel certificate, and prices can range from about $50 to $130.
In Japan, the cost of a PCR test with a certificate in English for travel can cost up to 33,000 YEN ($290). Governments in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have introduced price caps on COVID tests.
Many countries have vaccination requirements for travellers, with some specifying the brand of vaccine needed to enter or avoid a stay in quarantine, but others only require passengers to take COVID tests.
Pre-travel and on-arrival testing can be pre-booked and paid for to avoid long waits at the airport.
Passengers can be asked to fill out online health forms, or download an app or use a QR code to show their test results or vaccination status.