Millions of people are now vaccinated, boosted and newly cured of Covid-19 infections caused by the omicron variant.
They have what some outside the medical community have called “super immunity.” And many are ready to see the world again.
Although the term bears an air of invincibility, medical experts disagree on the level and duration of protection it confers.
CNBC Travel asked four leading medical authorities to weigh in.
The risks of serious illness for those vaccinated and recovered are “low and…unlikely to decline,” said Dale Fisher, group leader of medicine at the National University Health System in Singapore.
For these people, travel risks are now more about inconvenience than health, he said. Immune travelers can still get sick while traveling, he said, or have their trips canceled if they test positive for a pre-flight test.
Fisher said traveling is not the Covid risk it once was, due to the prevalence of the omicron variant today, he said.
“There’s nothing magical about travel; you’re not more likely to get [Covid] because you travel unless you go from a very low endemic area to a very high endemic area,” he said. But “there aren’t many low endemic areas left in the world”.
Some argue that vaccinations and recovery offer more protection, Fisher said. However, he added, “you are also very well protected after two doses” of a vaccine.
“You are at risk of contracting Covid, wherever you go, for the rest of your life,” he said. “But really, for the vast majority of people, it will only be a very minor illness, if symptomatic.”
People shouldn’t let their guard down just yet, said Dr. Patrice Harris, former president of the American Medical Association and CEO of the home medical testing company. eMed.
“We’re seeing a reduction in hospitalizations, but listen, we’re still seeing 2,400 deaths a day in this country,” she said in an interview with CNBC Travel last week. “We are not at the end of this pandemic yet.”
That doesn’t mean she discourages travel — Harris said she’s planning two trips to Europe this year. But she recommends that people rely on “proven evidence-based practices”, such as vaccines, testing, masks, ventilation and social distancing.
Dr. Patrice Harris served as president of the American Medical Association from 2020 to 2021.
Harris said people who are immunocompromised, or around others who are, should exercise more caution. Even though she is vaccinated and strengthened, she is still careful for the sake of her 87-year-old father, she said.
“This virus is very cunning and has deceived us at every turn,” she said.
There is always the threat of another variant emerging, plus the risk of developing so-called “long Covid”, even after mild infections, she said.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, I’m going to get Covid, I’m young, I’m healthy, I’m boosted, so I’m going to get over it quickly,'” she said. “But…not everyone will.
“You should travel”
People who are generally healthy, have had three doses of a vaccine and have recovered from omicron should feel safe to travel, said Stefanos Kales, professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
“Unless you really have a serious illness or serious concern, and want to travel, you should definitely travel,” he said. “You should feel pretty comfortable because what else, you know, is going to protect you better?”
“Let’s face it…it really does look like [Covid] it’s not going to completely go away,” he said. “We have other coronaviruses, some of them are cold viruses and… as troublesome as colds are, we haven’t found the magic bullet for these or a vaccine. But in general, we live our lives in spite of them.”
“I think it’s time to…treat this like we’re dealing with the flu or a cold,” he said.
Professor Cyrille Cohen, head of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University’s immunotherapy laboratory, said it was too early to say that vaccinated and recovered people are fully protected.
Like Harris, he is concerned about the threat of new variants, he said.
He said until the situation stabilizes: “I believe that we still have to feel humble and careful.”
Travelers could be infected with a new variant, which has not yet been detected. “That’s how it started for a lot of people in 2020,” he said.
People with so-called “super immunity” may suffer less severe disease, he said. “But it’s so dependent on the kind of variation” that can emerge.
“It’s always a race… between your immune system and the pathogens,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want to be the person who wins this race.”