The Pfizer Vaccine Looks 90% Effective, Great News For Travel!

Pfizer reports their Covid-19 vaccine, in conjunction with BioNTech, so far appears 90% effective. With 94 people in the clinical trial having gotten Covid-19 so far, that means people in the control group receiving the placebo were about 10 times as likely to get the virus as someone who had received the vaccine.

The drug maker could reach milestone of 2 months since the second dose for half of trial participants in order to apply for Emergency Use Authorization next week. They report no ‘serious’ side effects in the trial. That’s great news, great progress. And it means we should have great optimism for travel.

We can only expect 50 million doses before the end of this year. It’s a two dose regiment, so that’s enough for 25 million people. Access will initially be highly restricted. And even for people who get it right away, protective immunity will still be a couple of months off.

  • Let’s assume an Emergency Use Authorization in December
  • And first shots in January, second shots 3 weeks later, and another week to experience protective immunity.

Pfizer expects to have 1.3 billion doses in 2021, much of it backloaded in the year. But it’s a great sign that the second half of the year is going to be normal for people in the Western World.

There are other vaccine makers we’re hopeful to have drugs from, such as Moderna, Astrazeneca, and Novavax. We don’t know yet how efficacious those will be. Assuming some of those are approved too that’ll mean a lot more doses more quickly, but if there’s real differential in effectiveness it may matter a lot which vaccine you get since presumably you won’t be able to get more than one for a period of time.

Summer 2021 is likely to look a lot better than the U.S. looks today. 90% effectiveness taken by half of people would even be enough to stop wearing masks. But since it’ll be perhaps six months before most of us in the U.S. can get the shot we may still see quite a bit of vaccine tourism, trips to the Mideast for access to one of the Chinese vaccines right away.

It’s going to take a long time until the whole world has access, so many countries will need to worry about people with Covid-19 entering for quite some time. And that means that border reopening will take some time after the vaccines begin to be widely available and there will likely be cumbersome procedures such as proving vaccination (or continued testing). There are still open questions about effectiveness in reducing infectiousness and preventing severe cases. But there’s a path to normalization, not to mention layered onto better treatments like monoclonal antibodies which should receive FDA approval soon.

On a discounted present value basis we should be enthusiastic today about travel, and about once again engaging with the rest of the world. I’m thrilled at the prospect of visiting my family in Australia, and new family members that are currently on the way. Much of the pessimism over a vaccine has hinged on far lower rates of effectiveness, the need for far more people to take it as a result. The results being shared today are significant.

This is also great news for airlines and hotel businesses and cruises too. It’s great news for their ability to pay back debt, and even to raise more. And it takes the need for additional government support off the table. That doesn’t mean they will stop asking for handouts. And it doesn’t mean their vassals in Congress won’t work for it. But any justification is gone, they’ve got plenty more revenue on the way soon and better prospects that will mean continuing to access capital markets without real impediments. Airlines also have plenty of heads up about when travel might return, they can scale their employment levels accordingly on their own.

Even though this is still far from over, let’s take a moment to thank the scientists. As much as we criticize government response to the pandemic, the biomedical response has been incredible.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. From the current batch of data, 45 people received the vaccine, the remainder placebo. Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to make the control group almost 10x as big as the treatment group.

  2. With 94 infections, assuming 50/50 split of test/placebo, if the vaccine was completely ineffective the infection spit would be 47/47 in each arm.

    For the vaccine to be 90%+ effective, there is at most 8 infections in the test arm and at least 86 in the placebo arm so far. That’s how they’d calculate the 90%+ as the vaccine prevented 78 infections vs placebo’s 86, or 90.7% (in this example).

    Great news for all!

  3. You’re getting way too ahead of yourself Gary. A 10% failure rate for the US alone means 35,000,000 people are susceptible to catching it. That’s a non-trivial number no matter how you slice it. And that’s assuming a 100% vaccination rate which we all know is nowhere near the actual number of people who will get vaccinated so that 35,000,000 COVID pool in the US is much larger. Our health care system will not be able to handle that many infections any more than it could now.

    Given those numbers, I don’t see masks going away. I don’t see social distancing going away. I don’t see travel restrictions going away for most of the world for a while. At least not until we understand a lot more about that 10% that the vaccine doesn’t work on. If they can figure out what type of person isn’t going to have immunity to the vaccine that information might be enough to make travel more likely. Otherwise anyone who gets the shot should consider themselves vulnerable to catching COVID and react accordingly…meaning no easing up on what they are currently doing to avoid it.

  4. I’m glad other people had the same reaction to this I did. Gary, as far as I know, you are neither an epidemiologist nor an immunologist, and you should stick to your areas of expertise. My main red flag was that I do not see a link to the report from Pfizer or even from a reputable news source. Your “source” for the being able to go maskless is just another one of your own blog posts, not a peer-reviewed article or reputable news source. I know this is gatekeeping, which I hate to be a part of, but epidemiology and immunology take years of training to understand, and shoddy “reporting” like this is how we get people thinking masks cause them to be unable to breathe.

    You should also be more precise about what “effectiveness” means. It has a very precise meaning in the RCT community, and the lay understanding of it isn’t always spot on.

    Even if all of this is correct and they are on a real winner, the timeline you’ve described is likely optimistic. I wouldn’t take their claims at face value. I will be very surprised (although pleasantly so) if things have gotten much better by this coming summer. I think tempering expectations is the most prudent course, as anything short of expectations will lead to exasperation, people preemptively going out because they are tired of being cooped up, and leading to a last hurrah for COVID. Please do not be part of the cause here.

  5. Jeff and Doug are just angry because this news came out after the election and couldn’t help their boy Trump. Move on with life, guys!

  6. SAS shares went up over 25% today. And with the SEK up against the US dollar this month, that’s a bonus gain.

  7. @Douglas Swalen first of all, a vaccine doesn’t just protect the person who gets it. While we don’t have full data from the trial yet, let’s assume it also prevents 90% of people who get it from spreading it. That massively cuts down on transmission.

    Let’s assume your 100% vaccination rate. Not only do 10% of the population in the U.S. getting vaccinated not have very much Covid around to infect them, it’s false to say that 33 million people remain vulnerable because many of those people will have already had the virus within the past year (and also aren’t spreading it) and some of those will likely have cross-immunity or at least highly robust immune response from prior exposure to other coronaviruses. Moreover remember that a substantial portion of those who do get the virus are asymptomatic.

    This doesn’t mean SARS-CoV-2 will be ‘gone’ but it means it will no longer be a global pandemic. It will infect a small number of people, and with the better treatments we’ve got enroute it will do serious harm to an even smaller percentage of those people.

    It will mean a return to normal life, although as I allude to in the post I agree that travel restrictions will take some time to relax.
    – The whole world won’t get the vaccine at once
    – Some governments will be super conservative
    – There will likely still be hoops to jump through,rather than just visa exemptions as we’re used to with so many countries – likely showing a vaccination certificate and possibly in some cases still testing too.

    The people who get the earliest shots will have some vulnerability, the more people get the shot the less vulnerable we’ll all be, and the sooner we’ll return to the Before Times.

  8. Anyone who doesn’t see this as good news needs to reexamine their life.

    Do you also find $20 bills and complain if they aren’t crisp and new?

  9. Harvey I’m curious how you equate someone wanting to put the breaks on all the hooplah, which is the exact opposite of what the Orange Terror wants, to be a Trump supporter. Is this part of that new fangled math where 2+2 = 7?

    Gary, I hope you’re right. I really do. But we have consistently underestimated the virus from the start. The Pfizer vaccine, if it proves out, is a big step in the right direction. But we are a long ways away from anything approaching normalcy.

    But I think you misunderstood my point about the 33,000,000. It’s not that they all would get it. It’s that they are all potentially vulnerable. Lockdowns and restrictions aren’t the only thing that’s killing the economy…it’s fear. Fear of travel. Fear of exposure. A 10% failure rate for COVID translates into a population who worries about playing russian roulette with the virus. Six times out of seven, nothing happens…but that seventh time…BANG! (I’m assuming a six shooter here)

    This isn’t like catching the flu which most people recover from with no problems. Recovering from COVID doesn’t always mean you’ve recovered. It can mean real permanent damage. It can mean long dragged out recoveries lasting months. It can mean re-infection in just a few months. There’s a lot we still do not understand about how this virus does what it does (and even what it does).

    We don’t know enough about how long antibodies to COVID stay active in people who recovered from it. There hasn’t been enough time yet to make any reasonable determination on that point. We do that re-infection has happened already. We know that some people who didn’t get it bad the first time got it bad the second.

    We also know that a sizeable chunk of the population will absolutely balk at a vaccine. Not just anti-vaxxers, but people who are worried about the fact that we are rushing vaccines to market in 1/4 to 1/5 of the time we normally do and that raises questions…some unreasonable…some reasonable. My own 90 year old mother says she probably won’t get one. I myself will probably take a go slow approach until I see how things unfold. What this means is getting anywhere close to herd immunity is going to be a lot harder than a lot of people think it is.

    This is why I say you are getting too far ahead of yourself. There are just too many variables at play which go in to judging when we can reasonably expect to return to the Before Times (if such a thing is possible and I hope it is). We don’t have a proper understanding of all those variables yet. And we won’t for a while.

  10. More bad math above. 35 million potential cases does not mean 35 million actual cases. First, there is the potential for herd immunity if 90% of people cannot be infection vectors. Second, many of the 35 million would never get the disease because they won’t get exposed. Third, of those who get exposed, many will be asymptomatic with zero effect. So the actual fatality rate is likely to be far lower than we see now.

    Personally I am not currently willing to roll the dice on non-essential travel as it is just not worth the risk. But reducing that risk by 90% would definitely be enough to get me back in the air. Particularly if vaccination was a requirement for boarding the plane.

  11. @Cmorgan – didn’t you say Biden would be bad for stocks, and you put all your money in bonds?

    President-Elect Biden – first full day of work and you delivered us the vaccine! Big congrats.

  12. People are *dying* by the thousands….and your headline is “Great News For Travel!” ??? And poor countries are being decimated and your statement is “it’s a great sign that the second half of the year is going to be normal for people in the Western World”? And just to remind us of priorities you claim the vaccine ” would even be enough to stop wearing masks”?

    Wow. Just wow.

    Yes the preliminary news about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is great. But celebrate the potential real impact on human beings—not just on discretionary travel and the stock market

  13. @Douglas Swalen

    Extrapolating 35,000,000 potential COVID-19 cases from the 90% efficacy rate and wetting the bed over it just demonstrates your innumeracy and ignorance. How did you make it this far in life? People freaking out over the pandemic is worse than the disease itself. It costs lives and livelihoods.


    Biden had nothing to do with delivering a vaccine. He did help deliver mass incarceration of blacks, the War on Terror and the European refugee crisis, though. Thanks!

  14. @cargocult – they always say conservatives have no sense in humor….you are example #4,875,239

    Keep pretending you’re not a Trump sycophant!

  15. ” But it’s a great sign that the second half of the year is going to be normal for people in the Western World.” Umm not even close. The vaccine isn’t fully cleared yet and its got a lot of distribution issues. Its going to take two doses. In a best case scenario we are looking at people who are not high risk starting to get this in April. Then you need to wait another three weeks for the second dose. Then you have to wait for the immunity to kick in. Its highly unlikely the distribution will go smoothly because the US has botched soo much stuff already and this vaccine needs to be kept at like -103 which most doctors officers/pharmacies don’t have the capability of so that will drastically reduce the speed of the rollout. Then you will have the anti-vaxxers. Virus won’t go away if enough people don’t take the vaccine. Then when it comes to international travel I wouldn’t count on every country having adequate vaccinations. People being able to stop wearing masks in 2021? Not likely. Normal summer travel season in 2021? Not a chance.

  16. The biggest issue with most Covid 19 vaccines under development is that most of them require to be stored at freezing or below freezing temperatures IIRC.
    Maintaining that cold chain is easier in certain countries, but difficult in most.

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