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, insisting that uneven vaccine rollout within and between countries is of far greater consequence.
While many developing nations have yet to receive a single dose, significant inroads have been made in countries, like the US and the 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 applauded the positive effects of vaccination and non-pharmaceutical intervention (aka lockdown) in the UK, describing the government’s plan to reopen all sectors of its economy by 21 June as “not fanciful”.
As the vaccination effort continues, governments around the world are learning to live with the virus. Photo Credit: Our World in Data
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 the 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.
The possibility of only having vaccinated people flying could be a reality within the next six months.
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 planners and corporate travel planners had hoped.
Phased mobility planning is the safest way forward, according to International SOS security director, James Robertson. Like Quarry, he cautions vaccine nationalism and the “infodemic” affecting not only travel recovery, but also 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.
Vaccines will surely help, but they aren’t the silver bullet that many event planners and corporate travel planners had hoped. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Viorel Poparcea
As airlines continue to struggle, route reductions will also pose an issue for regional and international movement, particularly long-haul flights between primary and secondary cities.
“Legacy carriers, especially those that relied on business class, have had the greatest problem,” Robertson said.
Another criteria to return to the skies will be digital health passports, which Robertson believes will be “a key feature” to Covid-safe travel. IATA’s Travel Pass is being rolled out this month (March), joining a number of other blockchain-powered passes, such as CommonPass, AOKpass by the International Chamber of Commerce, SITA’s Health Protect, and Verifly.
Robertson believes regulatory authorities will see digital health passes as a mandatory requirement for travel — and airlines like Qantas have already stated that a vaccination passport will be necessary for international travel. But greater standardisation is needed to reduce friction and uncertainty, especially for business travellers with complex itineraries.
Quarry added: “Vaccination passports will ensure everyone is protected against severe disease, but won’t 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.”