How Will A Covid-19 Vaccine Impact Travel?

Virus Outbreak Colombia

Chinese engineers arrive using protective biohazard suits to prevent the spread of novel Coronavirus on an expedited flight to El Dorado international airport to start the planning of Bogota’s metro train system on August 3 2020 in Bogota, Colombia.


In the past decade, the world has seen a steady rise in travel and tourism that undoubtedly influenced the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic. People flew in and out of China six times as much on a daily basis in 2018 than in 2002—the year SARS, the first coronavirus to become lethal to humans, first appeared. Just as travel, and global mobility more broadly, has changed how fast and far infectious disease can spread, Covid-19 will no doubt impact how we travel.

But what about a Covid-19 vaccine? Will the Pfizer vaccine on the verge of approval in the United States make travel safe again? At the moment, what we know about the Pfizer vaccine particularly is that it very likely protects against mild and, though this data is weaker, serious disease. What we don’t know—what prospective travelers must consider—is whether the vaccine prevents or at least reduces infection and transmission. We also don’t know how long vaccine-mediated protection lasts. It could be months, a year, or longer.

Until enough time passes, we won’t be able to measure either variable. How we conduct ourselves in the meantime, then, is the question. Even if prevention measures and travel restrictions stay in place, once a safe and efficacious vaccine is available for mass use we can expect public attitudes and behaviors to shift accordingly. Once vaccinated, people who have holed up at home since the spring will be tempted to flee the coop and catch the next flight to their dream  destination—whether that’s grandma’s house, Honolulu, or Honduras.

You can’t blame them, either. Had public health interventions been enforced with adequate strategy and rigor early on in the pandemic, many more of us might be homeward bound for the holidays. So long as we don’t know whether vaccinated individuals can still catch and spread disease, however, we’ll need to exercise as much caution as ever. That means continuing to wear masks, wash our hands, and yes, social distance. Vaccinated or not, we could very well still be vectors of disease. Until we know with certainty this isn’t the case, discarding the habits we’ve formed to protect ourselves and those around us won’t end well.

Although some policies are necessarily here to stay, others will have to be redrawn to accommodate the realities of mass vaccination. One is the travel policy China debuted last month requiring, in addition to a negative PCR test result for Covid-19, a negative IgM antibody test result. The PCR test measures the amount of viral RNA in the nasopharynx, while the IgM test essentially detects whether or not the body has produced an initial antibody response against Covid-19. Those who receive a vaccine might test positive for Covid-19 specific antibodies despite being protected from sickness. Unless the rule changes, travel to China for the vaccinated will be difficult.

There is another potential complication, though far less likely. Some of the RNA used to develop the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—both of which were without precedent and created with the same technology—could have longer half lives than expected, making it detectable by the average PCR test. Tried and true methods that capitalize on other parts or forms of the virus, like the proteins used to develop subunit vaccines, would be easier to work around, but at least in the United States don’t have a horizon for rollout just yet.

All in all, we must face the fact that a Covid-19 vaccine, no matter how successful, won’t be enough to pave over the bumpy road ahead, least of all when it comes to traveling. Rather than planning and preparing for a post-pandemic world, we should hunker down for a hazy limbo of sorts—knowing that if we continue to follow safety guidelines and take great care going forward, even after getting vaccinated, we’ll be that much closer to ending the current crisis for good.


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Originally published on Forbes (December 11, 2020)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.