SA is looking into scrapping PCR tests for vaccinated visitors – or allowing cheaper tests

Business Insider SA

Covid-19 PCR test travel South Africa
(Getty Images)
  • Travellers coming to South Africa need to undergo PCR testing, with no exceptions.
  • Other countries now waive testing for the fully vaccinated, or at least allow inexpensive and quicker rapid antigen tests.
  • The health department this week confirmed that it has received – and is "processing" – proposals concerning changes to the testing protocols.
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International travellers visiting South Africa need to present a negative PCR test result not older than 72 hours from the time of departure. No exceptions are made for the fully vaccinated and rapid antigen tests don’t count.

That could be changing – though there are no guarantees just yet, and things aren't moving fast enough for everyone's liking.

The department of health this week confirmed to Business Insider South Africa that it had received proposals to scrap testing for fully vaccinated travellers or, at the very least, include rapid antigen tests as an option.

Spokesperson Foster Mohale noted that the debate surrounding testing requirements was not something new and although the department of health had received proposals, the decision to change regulations rested with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

“Some are proposing that we accept the antigen test [and] these are proposals that we are still processing,” Mohale told Business Insider SA.

“Once we have [discussed] them with the NCCC [and] if they are endorsed then we'll be able to announce [changes] but it is true that we have received such proposals… but as of now, the status quo remains. There are no changes.”

Many in the tourism sector have been pushing hard for a radical change to South Africa's approach. 

Dropping the mandatory requirement for fully vaccinated travellers to undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to visit South Africa will go a long way in aiding the tourism sector’s recovery, they argue.

Fully vaccinated travellers shouldn’t face any barriers, in the form of either Covid-19 testing or mandatory quarantine. This is the view held by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which, in its paper on restarting global travel, published in November, proposed that pre-departure testing should enable those without access to vaccines to travel.

This sentiment was raised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) back in July 2021 as part of a public policy consideration document which urged countries to adopt a risk-based approach when implementing and updating travel regulations.

International travellers should not be considered as a priority group for Covid-19 testing and those who’ve been fully vaccinated should be exempt from heightened travel restrictions, according to the WHO. Additionally, policies for testing and quarantine should be regularly reviewed to ensure they are lifted when they are no longer necessary.

And while the world still fights a wave of Omicron infection, some countries, most recently the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland, have heeded the WHO’s call.

The UK no longer requires fully vaccinated travellers to provide a negative PCR test result before travelling to England and has, instead, moved to a cheaper, quicker post-arrival rapid antigen – or lateral flow – test. Ireland recently scrapped all testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers entering the country. Germany has done the same.

And for those countries that still require some proof, the rapid antigen test, which is less than half the cost of a PCR with results available within 30 minutes, is commonly permitted as an alternative.

“Our stance is [that] vaccinated travellers should not require any PCR testing. If they do show symptoms when they are in the country, they’ll get tested,” Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), told Business Insider SA.

“The reason for that is quite simple… we are competing with other countries that have scrapped PCR testing for fully vaccinated travellers. So, if we continue with PCR testing, the travellers, when they choose where to go, will start with the countries that don’t require them, if they are fully vaccinated, to have PCR testing.”

This unwavering PCR testing requirement is doing the country’s economy no favours, according to the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA). The association’s CEO, David Frost, has argued that the “logical” decision would be to drop testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers which would save visitors “hassle and cost”.

“For all segments of tourism to flourish certainty is required,” Frost told Business Insider SA.

“Reversing decisions on quarantine, contract tracing, etc is confusing for travellers. We would also encourage the DOH [department of health] to discontinue the PCR test requirement for travellers who produce a vaccination certificate as is being done elsewhere in the world.”

Professor Shabir Madhi, director of the Vaccines & Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, told Business Insider SA that it “doesn’t make any sense to have testing for entry if the virus is so widespread in circulation.”

This is especially true for South Africa, which, according to Madhi, is “only documenting one-tenth of the infections that are occurring in the first instance.”

Tshivhengwa confirmed that he had raised the issue of relaxing testing requirements with the highest levels of government but added that the process was moving too slowly.

“It needs to be given the necessary consideration. We debated this last year and said, look, let’s be a little bit more progressive,” said Tshivhengwa.

“We’ve presented that, and I believe there’s enough evidence to support our stance. Do I think government is taking this seriously? I would want them to move faster… we can’t just talk about recovery [of the tourism sector] without removing obstacles.”

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