Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine and international travel: What it means for travellers

The news that vaccines to prevent us from falling sick with COVID-19 will soon be deployed in Australia has implications for travel, but it won't open the door to allow us to gallop wherever we like in the world. It's just a step, and the road is long.

Travellers still need testing

Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine may be up to 95 per cent effective. That's impressive, but even for that 95 per cent, it's not an armour-plated defence. Like any other SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, while it will stop most of those vaccinated from getting sick with the coronavirus, that's not the whole picture.

In an ABC 7.30 Radio interview, Dr Norman Swan said "The Achilles heel of COVID-19 vaccines is that they may not prevent infection in the first place and that has huge implications for transmission and the pandemic. While it would be great to prevent people getting sick with COVID-19, the problem - if the vaccines don't prevent infection and transmission - is that there will be no herd immunity and the pandemic will continue."

Therefore the need to test even those who have been vaccinated to prevent us from becoming infected. Incoming travellers are the major source of the infection for us, and they need to remain in quarantine until they test negative.

Antigen tests, which detect specific proteins on the surface of the coronavirus, can produce a result within 15-30 minutes, but they're not reliable. A person infected with the coronavirus doesn't begin producing antibodies immediately. It can take several days for a blood antibody test to turn positive. Someone who is infected can return a false negative, and they're a potential risk if they're allowed to mix with the wider community.

That's why Singapore, which has opened its door to travellers coming from safe countries, including Australia, requires incoming passengers to submit to a more dependable polymerise chain reaction (PCR) test. Singapore also requires them to self-isolate until the test proves negative. PCR tests detect the presence of the virus's genetic material, and right now they're the sharpest tool in SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis. However they're slow to produce results, several hours at the very least, and more often a couple of days, therefore the need for quarantine.

Quarantine won't end soon, but it could change

Leaving Australia for a quick holiday in Bali or a ski trip to the US is off the table right now. You need permission to leave, and you'd need a very good reason to do that since you'd spend two weeks in hotel quarantine on return. For the moment, outbound leisure travel is dead in the water. Expect hotel quarantine to remain in force for most incoming travellers, but it's likely to become a nuanced approach, depending largely on where you're coming from.

For example, New Zealanders are now welcome without quarantining in all Australian states except Western Australia but even in those other states problems can arise, as a planeload of Kiwis discovered when they arrived in Brisbane on Saturday December 12. Instead of falling into the arms of friends and relatives or heading to a beach resort they were carted off to spend the next two weeks in hotel quarantine. That means Christmas pudding alone, locked in a hotel room. The problem was their flight was flagged as "red, one carrying passengers from countries other than New Zealand, and therefore potentially infected with COVID-19. If it had been a "green" flight, carrying only New Zealand residents, all would have been well.

For Australians and New Zealanders travelling east across the Tasman it's a different story. Anyone entering New Zealand from overseas is currently required to quarantine for two weeks but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has suggested that may change to quarantine-free travel for Australian visitors and New Zealanders returning home from Australia by about March, provided both countries remain free of COVID-19.

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That would pave the way for two-way quarantine-free travel across the Tasman. The Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group, which includes health experts and airline, airport and border agency representatives from each country, already has a detailed proposal on the table, subject to the ministerial green light from both countries.

In an interview outlining the proposal on TVNZ, Prime Minister Ardern also noted "We're quite keen to see segregated airline staff for quarantine-free travel." That would snuff out another vulnerability in the quarantine system which was underlined recently when a Sydney van driver who chauffeurs international flight crews to and from Sydney Airport tested positive for COVID-19.

All being well, the resumption of trans-Tasman travel could be the prelude to a more expansive travel bubble to include some of the Asian countries that have low rates of infection such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Europe or North America will have to demonstrate far fewer case numbers before the Australian government would allow two-way quarantine-free travel. Even if they vaccinate most of their populations against COVID-19, that's not likely to happen before the closing months of 2021.

See also: Can you catch COVID-19 during a flight?

See also: 'Losing hope': Indefinite ban on international travel devastating tourism

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