Medical Specialists Oppose Travel Bubbles Amid New Covid-19 Variants

The Academy of Medicine Malaysia (AMM) asks the government to revoke the exemption order for ministers to only quarantine for three days upon arrival from abroad, until there is scientific evidence that suggests differently.

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 10 — The Academy of Medicine Malaysia (AMM) has criticised the new travel bubble exemption for ministers, who only need to quarantine for three days upon overseas return, amid the emergence of new coronavirus variants. 

The group of medical specialists, in a statement today, pointed out that there is insufficient data on other SARS-CoV-2 mutations to develop robust protocols for safe travel. 

“The effectiveness of so-called ‘travel bubbles’ are also still in question as new variants of Covid-19 with increased transmission capability spread rapidly around the world,” AMM said. 

“We understand there is urgency to restart the economy for the benefit of Malaysians and businesses that are struggling, but this can only be done by bringing the pandemic under control first.

“The government must not open up our borders to ‘bubble’ delegations and risk bringing in new variants that could overwhelm our health system.”

The UK B.1.17 variant that was first detected in the United Kingdom is more infectious and has spread rapidly to at least 70 other countries while there is also another variant of Covid-19 found in Brazil (E484K). So far, vaccines against these two variants have been working well. However, vaccines against the variant (B.1.351) found in South Africa have been shown to be less effective.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) previously announced that the UK variant has been found in Malaysia. It is unknown if the South African and Brazil variants are also circulating here.

Health Minister Dr Adham Baba recently signed off on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Exemption) Order 2021 effective February 9 until August 1 that permitted ministers returning from Malaysia from official visits abroad to undergo three days quarantine if they travel with a bubble overseas itinerary. 

Dr Adham said that the relaxation of the quarantine period for ministers is aimed at opening up the economy, telling the press that three-day isolation may soon be made available for business travellers and even the public entering Malaysia. 

Singapore, which previously allowed travel bubbles for Malaysians, has suspended the quarantine-free business travel arrangement for three months from January 30 as cases spiked in Malaysia. Singapore also suspended similar reciprocal arrangements with South Korea, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, as well as a general travel bubble with Hong Kong.

AMM said that all standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be grounded in science, and the quarantine period for inbound travellers have been set for 10 days as research shows that the risk of transmission is extremely low after 10 days with monitoring and testing in place. 

“The incubation period for Covid-19 is on average five to six days, but can be as long as 14 days. Therefore, three days is insufficient to detect symptoms. There must be an evidence-based, public health explanation for the government’s decision to reduce quarantine days,” AMM added. 

“We call on the government to revoke the Exemption Order and — until there is scientific evidence that suggests differently — enforce a 10-day quarantine for all.”

Besides AMM, other medical groups like the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) and the Malaysian Health Coalition (MHC) have strongly opposed the three-day quarantine period, both pointing out double standards in the government’s SOP and similarly urged the government to revoke the exemption order.

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