Will vaccines be the ‘silver bullet’ that restores the travel industry?
The first death attributed to a ‘novel coronavirus’ named COVID-19 occurred on January 10, 2020. The first case detected outside China was confirmed in Bangkok, Thailand on January 13– just three days later. The day before that, Chinese scientists had released the genetic sequence of the newly-identified virus, and the world was slowly waking up to what would soon become a living nightmare, with more than two million deaths attributed to the virus since then.
Thailand had a thriving tourist industry, which welcomed 39.80 million tourists in 2019 a staggering 10.99 million of them from China. The country saw numbers fall to zero in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2020, despite dealing with the pandemic more successfully than many other nations. This sort of precipitous ‘fall off a cliff’ has been the norm for most countries dependent on international tourism.
For reasons that scientists do not yet understand, the infection and death rates have been markedly dissimilar in different parts of the world. The USA and many European countries appear to be more badly affected than other nations. The list of countries with COVID-19 deaths exceeding 1,000 per 1 million of population (i.e. 0.1%) is almost exclusively in the western hemisphere[i]: Belgium, Italy, Spain, the UK, Hungary, France and a few smaller European countries joining the USA, Mexico, Panama and Peru in having the most deaths per capita.
Asian and African countries are notably absent until Iran appears on the list at number 40 and South Africa at 42. Whether this is a reflection of better data-gathering, or some sort of intrinsic resistance to the disease, will only be known later once the numbers are fully analyzed. For the moment it must remain one of the many baffling features of this pandemic.
A host of vaccines
The speed with which multiple vaccines have been developed and the purported efficacy of the treatments are a huge tribute to how quickly science has developed in the past century, since the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
At the time of writing, 12 vaccines are in advanced clinical trials with ten of them approved for emergency or limited use[ii]. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved and is being deployed at the moment. But the requirement for the vaccine to be stored and transported at a temperature of minus 70°C makes it challenging for use in parts of the world with poor infrastructure.
Moderna (of Boston, USA) has a vaccine that gained emergency authorization and is also being used currently. Both these vaccines use mRNA techniques, a highly advanced method that hasn’t been widely used previously and requires very cold storage. But President Trump has banned the export of vaccines produced in the USA, so for the moment the rest of the world has almost no access to these two products.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from the UK, which does not use mRNA as a base and therefore can be transported at more ‘normal’ refrigerated temperatures, has also received emergency approval. It is being manufactured not only in the UK but also in Pune, India, and has been approved for emergency use in several countries.
Russia has approved the Sputnik V vaccine that is also being administered by many countries including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Serbia and Belarus. Unconfirmed reports state that Sri Lanka has opted for this vaccine as well as the Oxford one produced in India. China too has produced two vaccines that are in the process of being distributed.
Will universal vaccination be the answer?
The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau (population 18,000) is likely to be the first in the world be fully vaccinated. Ironically, the country has not recorded a single case of COVID-19 due to its isolation. But small islands apart, the logistics of vaccinating a nation’s entire population is a daunting task. Israel, with its population of nine million, an advanced health care system, and deep pockets, expects to be the first sizeable country to achieve near-universal vaccination by March 16, 2021[iii].
The city-states of Singapore and Dubai (both home to huge airlines dependent on international travel) also intend to vaccinate their entire populations in the next month or two. Interestingly, Dubai and neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi seem to be taking different approaches to the issue within the same country. Dubai has remained open to tourism, particularly from the UK, while Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has greatly restricted inbound travel.
Other countries such as New Zealand, which has controlled the virus well, and Australia, which has had a few clusters but no prolonged pandemic, are taking a more measured approach. Neither nation will commence mass vaccination for another month or two. Meanwhile, the borders of both countries are closed to foreign travelers. Only returning residents are permitted to enter, but they must all quarantine for 14 days, a stance that many countries have adopted. The proposed ‘travel bubble’ between Australia and New Zealand never transpired as the virus has continued to leak from quarantine, infecting local populations.
When can we expect ‘normal’ international travel?
The rollout of vaccinations has been dogged with supply chain and logistical issues. In the USA various states, and even individual counties, taking different approaches to the challenge, universal vaccination is probably many months away in that country. Meanwhile the death toll is expected to surpass 500,000 in the USA alone, a quarter of the total worldwide toll in a country with less than 5% of the world’s population.
As more infectious variants of the virus continue to spread, international travel has taken another downturn. It has become obvious that airline crews are a vector of transmission, and most countries are now restricting their movements. Some, like Australia, insist on testing crew members on arrival, and will not allow passengers on the outbound flight should a crew member have a positive test result. This has resulted in Emirates Airlines temporarily ceasing flights to Australia. Whether other international airlines will take similar steps remains to be seen.
A clear ‘vaccine hierarchy’ is developing, with wealthier countries able to secure an early supply of doses far in excess of what they need, while the middle and low-income world gets pushed down the queue. How this will change global tourism movements remains to be seen, but it will definitely have an effect. Evidence indicates that even though inoculated against COVID-19, an individual can remain infectious and spread the virus to others. In a world where the wealthy have received their vaccine and the poor have not, this has immediate concerns. Rich tourists who have had the vaccine will soon be able to travel to countries where it has not been available. Will they spread COVID to the host countries/ Another ‘unknown’ that needs to be addressed.
In the meantime the travel industry is bracing for a spurt of ‘tantrum travel’, as wealthy consumers who have been unable to leave their home countries take the first opportunity to travel anywhere accessible. But this is expected to be short-lived as destinations will be limited and costs high. How welcoming countries who have not secured sufficient stocks of the vaccines will be to visitors is also an issue.
Some type of digital travel pass that contains vaccination data will probably become a necessity; but without a common, universal standard it will be difficult to implement. Meanwhile, testing pre-departure and on arrival, mandatory in-flight masks, and reduced service on-board, will be the new normal. All this will add to processing times at airports, thereby frustrating passengers to an even greater degree.
While the number of airline bankruptcies has been relatively low in 2020 (compared to other years) there is a growing realization in the industry that the worst may not be over. We may be seeing the ‘end of the beginning’ of this global pandemic (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), but there still is a long way to go before we can expect to restore the travel patterns of 2019. Whether the planet can afford a return to the carbon output caused, is another matter entirely.
[i] Source https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/