Will you need an immunity passport to fly? How the COVID-19 vaccine will restart travel

Dec 27, 2020

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After nine months of social distancing, mask-wearing, nasal swabs and quarantining, it seems like hope is finally on the horizon.

Yes, there is a long, dark winter ahead with a record number of new cases and deaths expected, not to mention a more infectious strain of the virus that’s emerged in Europe. But for the first time since the onset of this pandemic, a clear exit has appeared.

In the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it was hard to envision a viable vaccine rolling out before the end of the year. But this month, two promising coronavirus vaccines became available, and people everywhere are wondering what their arrival spells for the resumption of normal life, including travel.

The majority of travelers say a proven vaccine will make them feel safe enough to hit the road again, according to a survey by the travel insurance provider Allianz. But vaccines won’t just change the way people feel about traveling: they could completely alter the entire travel experience.

TPG spoke to healthcare and travel professionals, as well as travelers, to understand how vaccines (once they become widely available), ongoing COVID-19 testing and potential immunity passports could reshape the travel industry.

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Immunity passports

If you’ve ever traveled to parts of the world such as West Africa, you’re likely familiar with the yellow fever card.

You get the card after taking the vaccine, which protects against the viral infection. The yellow fever card can be attached to your passport and shown upon arriving at your destination. Many of these countries, including Ghana, require proof of a yellow fever vaccine and won’t allow you to enter the country without it.

Experts said the same process would likely apply to so-called health or immunity passports.

This would be a form of proof that you’ve taken the coronavirus vaccine, and it could roll out in the upcoming months. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already provides a vaccination card that tells you key facts about your inoculation, including the date you received the vaccine and the type you received, and this may play into a health passport ultimately used for travel.

Related: The future of international flying? IATA and Qantas push vaccine passports to restart travel

In late November, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced it was developing the IATA Travel Pass, a digital health pass that will include a traveler’s test and vaccination certificates. A standardized health pass of some sort will likely prove to be necessary, given that travelers have already found ways to defeat testing by faking negative COVID-19 results.

(Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

But the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement to TPG that any standardized proof of vaccination, like a vaccine card, “would have to be as per the International Health Regulations and would happen with debate and engagement with our member states.”

“We will need to secure enough supply and access to safe and effective vaccines before such a certificate would be feasible,” the WHO said, adding that it’s “currently exploring how the common vaccination record could be done electronically.” 

Each country will likely set its own parameters, “but I definitely think [with] international travel, some airlines might require it, and some countries might require it,” said Dr. Ida Bergstrom, an immunization and vaccination specialist at Farragut Medical and Travel Care in Washington, D.C.

One airline that’s considering this path is Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas Airways. In November, its CEO said the airline was looking into changing its terms and conditions to require international travelers to be vaccinated against the virus.

Several countries have also kicked around the idea of an “immunity passport,” which would essentially allow you to skip quarantine if you can show proof that you’ve already had COVID-19. Some countries heavily reliant on tourism, such as Iceland and Hungary, are considering this model.

But experts say the model comes with significant risks because of the virus’s unpredictability.

“The immunity that comes from having the disease is not particularly predictable, nor is it well studied,” Dr. Bergstrom said. “When we check some of the antibodies, we get a number, but that number may not necessarily indicate lots of immunity … [and] we don’t know how long that immunity lasts.” 

For its part, WHO doesn’t recommend immunity passports. 

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Some readers in the TPG Facebook group expressed concerns about the way immunity passports and vaccine requirements could affect their future trips. 

Philadelphia-based Alan Stachura told TPG if a destination made a vaccination mandatory, he would likely plan a trip elsewhere. While he plans to get a vaccine, he said he fears logistical problems traveling to a country that required one.

“Imagine the complexity of hosting a meeting or a conference in a place that had strict vaccination policies,” Stachura said.

And Gina DeWitt, of Roseville, California, expressed concerns about vaccine fraud. “If the vaccine were [a requirement] to be able to travel,” DeWitt said, “there would be more fraudulent vaccine paperwork being sold on the black market.”

But health passports, or a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, could go a long way toward giving travelers more peace of mind when heading abroad. Several globetrotters who spoke to TPG said they’d opt for destinations that required “health passports” over countries with lax entry requirements.

“[A vaccine] is going to have a major impact on restarting travel from the perspective that will drive consumer confidence,” said John Lovell, the president of Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency. “The travel demand right now is high. The consumer wants to travel.”

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

What travel might look like after a vaccine

If you think you can ditch your mask and skip the line for a coronavirus test for your first post-vaccine vacation, think again. Travel experts told TPG that masks, enhanced cleaning policies, social distancing and pre-travel testing are likely part of the “new normal” for some time, even with a vaccine making the rounds.

And the stakes are high. While the airline industry maintained that the likelihood of catching COVID-19 on a flight was slim, convincing travelers might prove to be a challenge. A J.D. Power survey released this month found that the majority of passengers were most concerned about catching the virus onboard an aircraft, rather than at check in or security.

“Airlines don’t want to be accused of serving as vectors for the virus in passengers on board,” Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director of health and security services firm International SOS, told Healthline.

Related: What your hotel stay will look like in a world after coronavirus

For this reason, the heightened focus on cleanliness is likely to continue even after most travelers have been vaccinated. 

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Joe Leader, the CEO of APEX, one of the largest international airline associations, said carriers would continue to make changes like blocking middle seats “as needed” after the vaccine becomes prevalent. But flexibility — at least for the time being — and an emphasis on safety are likely to be prioritized for much longer. 

More: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats, requiring masks?

“What’s really going to [give] people more certainty for air travel is the right communication about what’s being done for their safety,” Leader said. “That will be very helpful for air travel resumption. People, more than anything, want to be safe.”

And if you’ve traveled during the pandemic, you might have been required to produce a negative COVID-19 test. Some form of coronavirus testing and screening before travel is likely to continue — and there’s precedent for it

The WHO declared the end of the Ebola epidemic in March 2016 and recommended ending pre-travel screening. But, screening continued in several West African nations through at least June after a cluster of cases was discovered in Guinea and Liberia. 

Bottom line

News of a vaccine with a reportedly 95% efficacy rate brought excitement to the travel industry and, according to several experts, an increase in bookings. One travel agent told TPG they immediately saw an uptick in cruise reservations for the second half of 2021, spurred by the vaccine’s arrival. 

“We’re very encouraged by the news of the vaccine … we do expect that [the vaccine] will definitely be an important motivator to folks being willing to [travel] again,” said Tori Emerson Barnes from the U.S. Travel Association.

Related: Experts just released guidelines to help restart the travel industry — here’s what’s in store

But we all know getting a vaccine may not be a fast or simple process. The rollout to the general public could pose logistical complications, Dr. Bergstrom explained.

That’s partly because the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses, needs to be stored in special refrigerators, which smaller facilities in the U.S. and other parts of the developing world might not have.

Even once you find a location with the vaccine, prepare to wait in line. The Vaccine Allocation Planner breaks down the vaccine distribution, with healthcare workers, first responders and older Americans in nursing homes and retirement communities first in line. The second and third phases will likely include people with certain medical conditions, teachers, people who are incarcerated and others at an increased risk of infection.

To put this in perspective, if Manhattan had 28,000 two-dose courses and 1.5 million eligible people to vaccinate, that’s only enough for roughly 1.9% of people to be vaccinated.

“On a global setting, to get this many [vaccines] rolled out as quickly as possible is going to be tough … ” said Dr. Bergstrom. “Not impossible, but tough.”

And there’s still a lot of work to be done before airlines of destinations can require travelers to pack their immunity passport or vaccination card, though it’s quite likely those will play a role in the travel industry one day. Until then, travelers should expect COVID-19 tests, enhanced sanitation programs and face masks to be a consistent part of the travel experience.

Featured photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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