COVID-19 vaccine and travel: Why this won't be like other travel vaccines

Many Australian travellers are used to getting vaccines to visit exotic destinations safely, but even with the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine the international travel situation remains precarious, according to experts.

"We've always had several countries requiring yellow fever vaccinations. [COVID-19] is a different order of magnitude," said Professor Adrian Esterman, epidemiologist at the University of South Australia. "This disease is so severe, that this situation will be pretty much on its own in terms of international travel."

Not only are airlines requiring pre-departure and post-arrival testing of travellers for the virus, but the International Air Transport Agency (IATA) and World Health Organisation (WHO), have proposed travel passes and "immunity passports" for travellers, stating whether they have been vaccinated. Just like an ordinary passport, they wouldn't be allowed on the plane without these documents.

"We've never had another situation where people will be required to both be vaccinated and tested when travelling. I can't think of any other disease where that's happened," says Professor Esterman.

Professor Esterman says the 95 per cent efficacy that BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin claims against COVID-19 symptoms is very high for a vaccine, but the estimated 50 per cent efficacy against transmission means the vaccination doesn't guarantee an individual is not infectious.

"Although the COVID vaccines we have at the moment that have been distributed are showing good protection against the disease, we're not sure if the vaccine is preventing the spread of the virus" says Dr Adam Taylor, virologist at Griffith University.

"Whether the vaccine prevents transmission is the important part when it comes to travel and the COVID passport. That data will likely become available in the coming months."

Dr Taylor believes it is "vitally important" for air travel to recommence if we want to return to a pre-COVID "normal".

In response to the COVID-19 vaccine's roll out around the world, Qantas has reopened international flight bookings from July 2021, including to the US and UK where the virus is rampant. The airline's chief executive, Alan Joyce, has also indicated passengers will need to prove they've been vaccinated in order to board flights.


However, a survey by global market research firm IPSOS found fewer than two thirds of Americans (64 per cent) would take a COVID-19 vaccine. Data from Imperial College London also found a similar rate in the UK with around two in three (65 per cent) willing to be vaccinated.

Dr Paula Fogarty, medical director at the Travel Doctor in Sydney suburb Chatswood, says the Pfizer vaccine's 90 per cent efficacy would need 60 per cent of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, while the Oxford University's vaccine minimum of 60 per cent efficacy would need at least 80 if not 90 per cent of the population vaccinated.

Dr Fogarty highlights that Australians who've visited destinations where yellow fever is prevalent, like South America, have for many years had to show certification of vaccination upon return.

Yet because "we don't know if the COVID-19 vaccine prevents transmission, regardless of whether you're vaccinated or not, if it's not preventing transmission then you may be infectious and travellers may still have to quarantine for two weeks."

Dennis Bunnik, president of the Council of Australia Tour Operators (CATO) and chief executive of Bunnik Tours, says he is "cautiously optimistic that the vaccine rollout will allow for the opening of borders."

Despite the "absolutely devastating" situation the international tourism industry faces with nearly 10 months without business, it's Bunnik's belief "the longer the borders remain closed, the more people will be champing at the bit to travel and people will be very keen to have a vaccine."

See also: Hundreds of complaints over 'offensive' Ryanair 'jab and go' ad

See also: Pilot makes a point about vaccines with syringe in the sky