As the race between vaccines and variants continues, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to chart a recovery course for business travel and the return of international meetings.
The best way forward, according to Dr. Doug Quarry, group medical director, medical intelligence, at International SOS, is to distribute a vaccine that not only prevents people from getting sick, but also stops the spread of Covid-19.
During a recent webinar he stressed the importance of assessing vaccine efficacy based on two outcomes: preventing mild, moderate and severe disease and infection.
“It’s a battle of the variants,” Quarry explained, outlining the differences between the UK, South African and Brazilian strains of the coronavirus. But he warned against new “scariants” that have recently emerged in the US, dismissing these as media hype. Instead, he said the uneven vaccine rollout within and between countries is of far greater consequence.
"The variation in vaccination rates, and the delay in vaccinations in many countries, is more important than all the talk about variants, especially the "new" California and New York variants," he said.
While many developing nations have yet to receive a single dose, significant inroads have been made in countries like the US and UK, which previously struggled to contain the pandemic.
Quarry reported progress towards herd immunity in the US, saying it may even be achieved within three or four months. He also recognised the positive effects of vaccination and non-pharmaceutical intervention (in this case, lockdown) in the UK, describing the government’s plan to reopen all sectors of its economy by 21 June as “not fanciful”.
On a global scale, Israel is leading the charge, with 92% of its population already vaccinated (as of 28 February), followed by the UAE (60%), and US (22%). According to Quarry, Israel has seen “very good results”, with an impressive 94% drop in symptomatic cases following two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.
As the vaccination effort continues, governments around the world are learning to live with the virus, developing novel ways to meet and travel safely.
In Singapore, a meetings bubble for business travellers, known as [email protected], opened last month with accommodation and meeting rooms (divided by floor-to-ceiling glass panels). The Thai resort island of Phuket also recently welcomed its first foreign visitors as part of a villa quarantine concept at Sri Panwa resort.
Remarkably, domestic travel in countries like Russia and China has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, plans for a trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand continue in earnest, with hopes of an April launch date. Tourism Australia managing director, Philippa Harrison, has also urged the government to focus on managing the virus — and associated risks — rather than trying to eradicate it.
Vaccines will surely help, but they aren’t the silver bullet that many event and corporate travel planners had hoped.
For now, phased mobility planning is the safest way forward, according to International SOS security director, James Robertson. Like Quarry, he said the enduring “infodemic” will affect travel recovery and consumer confidence. Vaccine nationalism will also create challenges, with Robertson advising travel planners to review duty of care responsibilities when it comes to a mobile or remote workforce.
“The current nationalistic economic agenda can manifest in real-world issues like protectionism and antagonism to foreign workers,” he said.
As airlines continue to struggle, route reductions will pose an issue for regional and international movement, particularly for long-haul flights between primary and secondary cities.
“Legacy carriers, especially those that relied on business class, have had the greatest problem,” Robertson said.
A return to the skies might also require the use of digital health passports, which store medical records like Covid-19 test results and vaccination records. IATA’s Travel Pass will be made available this month, joining a number of other blockchain-powered passes, such as CommonPass, the International Chamber of Commerce's AOKpass, and SITA’s Health Protect.
Robertson believes regulatory authorities will see digital health passes as a mandatory requirement for travel. Meanwhile, Qantas has already stated that proof of vaccination will be necessary for international travel. Data privacy remains a concern, and greater standardisation is needed to reduce friction, especially for business travellers with complex itineraries.
Quarry added: “Vaccination passports will ensure everyone is protected against severe disease, but it wont mean there isn’t a virus on the plane.”
Nevertheless, he remains positive. “You’ll be surprised at how fast [vaccination] is happening… the possibility of only having vaccinated people flying could be a reality within the next six months.”