By Wendy White, Egencia CMO
Last week I sat down for a Q&A session with Dr. William Hauptman, medical director of International SOS and Bruce McIndoe, renowned travel risk management expert and founder of World Aware to discuss the latest news around vaccines and how this will play out for business travel management next year.
Egencia: Over the last few weeks there has been so much great news about vaccines for COVID-19. How should we think about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines?
Dr. Hauptman: The landscape has really bad news and good news. Bad news is rising case numbers and hospitalizations in many countries, and it will be a difficult winter. However, the good news is there are globally 58 vaccines in trials and six frontrunners, using different platforms and technologies with likely different strengths in different populations. The incredibly good news is we have two vaccines coming to approvals now with efficacy rates of close to 95% — incredible considering our original goal was 50%. These vaccines will be available as early as this month.
Egencia: What will the vaccine distribution look like for countries around the world and what does this mean for business travel?
Dr. Hauptman: Vaccines will not a spark a revolutionary return to normal, but more of an evolution as we manage the distribution and as we monitor the impact and spread rate. Time is required for us to understand how long lived the effectiveness is and whether and how much we need to protect ourselves with boosters. We have a lot we still don’t understand.
Bruce McIndoe: I agree. We’ll see real value from the vaccines in the second half of ‘21 and into ‘22. We have some work to go to overcome “vaccine hesitancy” and to get vaccine deployment to 50-70%, which are the levels required for population immunity. We will be in a hybrid environment of testing, suppression (masks, social distancing), and working to distribute the vaccines globally for a few years while we ramp production and distribution.
Egencia: What does this all this mean for business travel recovery?
Dr. Hauptman: This may mean a significant dichotomy for domestic versus international travel. In some countries, I expect domestic travel to get closer to normal by the middle of next year. International travel will be a more difficult recovery due to variations in country specific vaccine status and the complexities of destination requirements.
Egencia: For international travel, we’ve already heard airlines say they will require proof of vaccination for international travel. How can we expect this to play out?
Bruce McIndoe: Vaccine proof is done today at scale. For example, we have it today for yellow fever, a disease we vaccinate against for those traveling to a yellow fever endemic country. COVID-19 will be no different when the vaccine is generally available. The key on timeline for this is that concept of generally available.
Dr. Hauptman: We are going to be again in a hybrid state as Bruce said. Today airlines and destinations require negative PCR (COVID-19) testing — sometimes up to three times before travel or arrival. Over the next two years there will be a transition from PCR testing to vaccination documentation, but in the interim it will be a hybrid environment of pre-travel testing, vaccination and destination testing.
Egencia: We’ve had the yellow card vaccine documentation for many years. What needs to happen to get an electronic standard or a private, yet free flow, of vaccine information to help create a more frictionless business travel experience?
Bruce McIndoe: The Travel Again initiative is working on standards. Today, the primary focus is testing and simplifying those standards. Two bodies are also working to get to a travel standard for electronic documentation. IATA is working on air transport to alleviate airlines from the burden of doing that themselves. The World Economic Forum has a program called CommonPass that will create health documentation standards more broadly.
Egencia: What do travel managers need to do now?
Bruce McIndoe: This situation is complex with the ever-changing landscape of origin-destination requirements, testing, vaccinations status, and traveler-specific risk factors. Travel managers will be pulling their hair out if we, the travel industry, don’t step-in to problem solve.
Travel managers need their travel management company (TMC) to take on critical aspects of origin-destination information and support travel managers with tools to track traveler status, like what Egencia is doing. This is truly the pointy end of the stick for business travel. TMCs must get this automated in the booking platform as travel decisions are being made.
Dr. Hauptman: Agreed. The travel manager needs to fully embrace their enhanced duty of care, not only to embrace vaccines and implement preventative measures like travel kits, but to actively educate their travelers on mitigating measures such as hygiene standards, mask wearing, social distancing and destination information. But travel managers must also ensure they have assistance from partners to provide medical assistance services to transfer or evacuate travelers who get unexpectedly quarantined as well as the economic protection for their travelers and travel programs that’s available through travel insurance.
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