First flight lands on Covid-free island - now the island is no longer Covid-free

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The island of Kiribati had managed to stay Covid-free for the entirety of the pandemic - but when the first flight touched down last Friday, two-thirds of the passengers onboard tested positive for the virus.

The independent island nation in the Pacific Ocean, population 119,000, reopened its borders on 10 January for the first time in 10 months.

A Fiji Airways flight from Fiji to the Kiribati capital of South Tarawa on 14 January was the first aircraft to land after the reopening.

But on-arrival testing showed that 46 of the 54 people onboard were infected with Covid-19. Authorities say the travellers are well and in quarantine.

However, after a security guard at the quarantine facility and two members of the public also tested positive, Kiribati’s leaders announced a four-day island-wide lockdown would be in place from Monday, alongside a two-week curfew that was put in place on Tuesday.

Schools are closed and residents are only allowed to leave their homes for essential groceries and medical assistance.

All arrivals on the Fiji flight had reportedly been in quarantine for two weeks before departure, as well as being tested before boarding, sparking questions about how they contracted the virus.

Kiribati’s 32 atolls lie roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii, a four-hour flight from Fiji.

Travellers to Kiribati need to show proof of double vaccination completed at least 14 days prior to travel, a negative test result from within the 72 hours before departure, proof that they did not have Covid 14 days prior, and “proof that [they] have travelled from a Covid-free country”. Arrivals must also undergo 14 days of quarantine at a designated quarantine centre.

According to a government graphic, 93.4 per cent of the islands’ populations have had one dose of the vaccine, but only 53.1 per cent have had two.

Many remote island groups have been successful at retaining a “zero Covid” record, but this has usually been achieved by imposing total travel bans.

Andrew Preston, a professor of microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, has said that such zero-Covid strategies are unsustainable.

“The scenario under which zero Covid had the greatest credibility was maintaining it while very high levels of immunity were built with vaccination,” he told CNBC.

“However, for most countries, it has proved very difficult to get a level of vaccination high enough to prevent any spread of an imported case, and now with the ability of omicron to reinfect and infect those vaccinated it appears to be a non-starter as a long-term policy.”

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