Amid concerns over a newly detected coronavirus variant spreading around the United Kingdom, United Airlines announced Thursday that it will require all travelers from the U.K. flying to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to show proof of a negative coronavirus test.
According to the airline, anyone traveling from London Heathrow to Chicago, Newark, Washington Dulles and San Francisco must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their departure starting on Monday.
"The health and safety of our employees and customers is our highest priority," the airline said in a statement. "United has been a leader in enacting new policies and innovations designed to keep employees and passengers safer when traveling, including mask mandates and requiring customers to complete a 'Ready-to-Fly' checklist before the flight acknowledging they have not been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 14 days and do not have COVID-related symptoms."
The latest requirement will apply to any traveler over the age of 5 and can include molecular or antigen tests. Those with connecting flights at LHR whose travel originated from another country will be exempt, the airline said.
This month, United has been operating four daily flights from London Heathrow to its four U.S. hubs.
Earlier this week, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said he didn't believe banning travel from the UK due to the latest coronavirus variant was necessary, but said the government was working with airlines on a plan to require negative tests for travelers.
Speaking in Chicago, Adams said the variant sparking concern in the UK has already been detected in multiple countries and has been circulating for weeks, possibly even months.
"This variant is already in at least three to four other countries, it's been identified," Adams said alongside Illinois' and Chicago's top public health officials. "This variant has also been around actually for several weeks to months in other places and so there's a chance that the variant is already here. What we need to emphasize to people is that the United States is connected to the rest of the world whether we want it to be or not and the most important thing that we can do is double down on our public health measures."
Adams said that in his discussions with medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, there has been no guidance to stop flights from the United Kingdom, despite the CDC stating "ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation."
"The U.S. is connected to the rest of the world whether we want it to be or not," Adams said. "The most important thing that we can do is to double down on our public health measures."
So far, British Airways will require travelers to test negative for the coronavirus before boarding flights bound for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday. Cuomo said at a press briefing that he also asked Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic to abide by the same requirements.
"If we continue to follow the public health measures that are out and that the people of Illinois are increasingly doing a better and better job of we will be able to defeat it," Adams said.
From Canada to India, one nation after another barred flights from Britain this week, while France banned British trucks for 48 hours while the strain is assessed.
Adams stressed that SARS-coV-2, which causes COVID-19, has already mutated over 20 times this year alone. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the new version's "rapid change from being a rare strain to becoming a common strain has concerned scientists in the UK."
"There is no indication thus far that this new variant will be resistant to vaccines," Adams said, adding however that "there may be a day when we do have a variant that doesn't respond to these vaccines and that's OK too because that's what happens with seasonal flu."
Adams said the greater concern comes ahead of the holidays this week and next.
"My level of concern about this is not so much about the variant, it is about the fact that we need people to be particularly cautious this holiday season about taking safety measures because even if this viral variant does turn out to be more contagious, it doesn't change," Adams said. "It only emphasizes further the important of washing our hands, wearing our masks, watching our distance and waiting to gather."
Adams' comments Tuesday echo those made by the CDC, which in a statement said that while the variant has not been detected in the U.S., "viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million U.S. cases."
"Given the small fraction of U.S. infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected," the CDC wrote.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday that the city's health department is following news of the new and potentially more contagious strain of coronavirus "very, very closely."
Lightfoot said the city has been monitoring the latest development prior to current reporting and said the city is prepared to "take all action that's necessary."
"We are following this very closely, we're digging down," Lightfoot said during an unrelated press conference Monday. "I don't think we know enough yet about what this potential new strain is, how it's transmitted, but believe me, we are following very closely, and we will take all action that's necessary to protect the public."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday implemented strict lockdowns in London and large parts of southern England in response to rising coronavirus infections. He said the growth in cases appeared to be stemming from a new variant of the coronavirus that is about 70% more transmissible than existing strains.
Meanwhile, the European Union gave the go-ahead to the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, setting the stage for the first COVID-19 shots across the 27-nation bloc to begin on Dec. 27. The approval came just hours after the EU's drug regulatory agency said the vaccine meets safety and quality standards. It is already being dispensed in Britain and the U.S.