Why Travel May Not Recover At All This Year (And Tests And Masks Could Remain A Way Of Life)

Confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from Covid-19 are declining. Vaccine supplies in the U.S. are growing. Though more infectious strains of the virus are spreading, we may be entering a lull in the virus due to seasonality. Summer was a peak in the U.S., but in areas where it gets hot and people head indoors, and the U.S. population hadn’t been exposed to the virus before so there wasn’t much background immunity.

We should be on the cusp of beating the pandemic, with enough vaccines for everyone in the country (there should even be approved this fall for tweens and teens). It’s time to get excited about a return to normal life, right? Not so fast.

There are several scenarios where the Covid-19 pandemic continues, and we’ll be working from home, sending kids to Zoom School, and staying away from most travel for far longer.

  • Virus mutations. The South African strain, with its E484K (‘EEK’) mutation, appears to allow for re-infection. It also seems not to be stopped by some vaccines. The AstraZeneca vaccine doesn’t seem to combat it well, and antibody production is substantially reduced in the Moderna vaccine. We’ll develop new vaccines to address mutations, hopefully, but that may mean playing whack-a-mole for awhile.

  • And the Chinese vaccine becomes the one that works best. All of the primary Western vaccines target the spike protein. Whether it’s the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, or the adenovirus vaccines from AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson (and even Russia’s Sputnik entry), vaccines teach the body to recognize the spike protein and try to fight it off. But if the spike protein continues to mutate, we may wind up chasing our tails. Wouldn’t it be strange if the Sinopharm vaccine turned out to be the world’s most effective, because it used the older approach of an inactivated virus – but teaching the body to recognize the full virus turns out to be far more effective against mutations than just focusing on the spike protein?

  • The virus re-emerges in the fall. After a seasonal lull, the virus comes back in the fall. Vaccination campaigns have been successful, but efficacy is lowered due to mutations (call it 60% effective rather than 95%), so it continues to spread.

  • Most of the world isn’t vaccinated for a long time. That means the world is still dealing with the coronavirus problem, and also that the virus has hosts around the world to continue mutating in.

  • Borders stay closed. Or any opening up requires both vaccination and negative tests. Covid-19 testing remains a part of life, and so does mandatory masking.

The biomedical advances over the last year have been incredible. We have a vaccine in record time, though it could have been faster still. That should continue to suppress spread even if the virus remains a fact of life. And we also have treatments from monoclonal antibodies to Ivermectin and Fluvoxamine, when someone gets Covid next fall their prognosis should be far better.

We’re on the cusp of putting the pandemic behind us, but there are stories you can tell where that doesn’t happen for a long, long time. Those mostly have to do with mutations that reduce the effectiveness of vaccines (and the effectiveness of some treatments as well).

Countries that don’t have access to vaccines and treatments, that have less hospital capacity, or that have succeeded so far in containing the virus and are striving to avoid seeing it enter their country, keep their borders shut. So international travel remains hobbled – and that’s even apart from continued testing requirements that add cost and hassle to the process.

Last June I wrote the optimistic case, that many of us have come now to take for granted: that a vaccine could be approved before the end of 2020, and summer 2021 could mean a return to normal. And that may happen, but there’s a possibility that it still won’t as well. To get out of the pandemic faster, and slow mutation (with fewer infected people in which the virus can mutate) we should do first doses first, and quickly approve the Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax vaccines making them available to lower priority individuals.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Thank you Gary for having the strength to tell the truth. Nothing is returning to normal this year, vaccines or not. And I’m not planning on taking that poison anyway.

  2. Any thoughts on whether

    a) Israel will open up by late May (to at least those with Vaccines)
    b) Travel back to the US (from Israel) won’t require quarantine in June


  3. Only about half of the U.S. population is, at this time, willing to be vaccinated. Unless that percentage significantly increases, this pandemic isn’t going to end any time soon.

  4. I hope half the people continue to not the vaccine, as it means I am likely to get it sooner. At least it will provide some possible protection. I get the flu vaccine every year and I understand that it’s not perfect either. I believe the Covid vaccine will become an annual ritual for me.

  5. What a ridiculous assertion. You don’t need everyone vaccinated to reap the benefits. Vaccines work against the B1.1.7 variant. As more people become protected via vaccine or immunity from prior protection or stops the virus from replicating stopping the E.484K variant from taking hold. When J&J vaccine hits the market in a few weeks supply will dramatically increase not only in the US but around the world.

    The US domestic market will recover robustly and international will slowly rebound over the next 6-18 months.

  6. Looking at it from an economic standpoint in just one situation; my adult daughter has the opportunity to undergo an MBA w/paid internship (her 2nd Masters degree) in the US or the UK, starting this fall. (She already did one MA in the UK). I’m encouraging her to go to the UK. Why?

    1) The UK is already ahead of the US in vaccination.
    2) Although the UK will not make the vaccine mandatory, there will be more of the population vaccinated (ie, fewer antivaxxers)
    3) The economy won’t hobble along with frequent downtime due to illnesses, local outbreaks, and shutdowns
    4) Despite the economic demise due to Brexit, there will be a quicker recovery because more businesses can reopen–and remain open
    5) Less illness means less economic loss. For as long as 50% in the US remain unvaccinated, and illness/ deaths/ hospitalizations occur, there will be more economic loss in healthcare costs.
    6) Just imagine what this costing the US government for all these elderly Medicare receipients who become ill!
    7) Just imagine how much private insurance costs will soar. Someone will have to foot the bill.

    There will be more trade, commerce, business activtiy and travel between vaccinated (known “safe” ) areas than those areas known as “unsafe”.

  7. I agree with you Gary; best scenario for the US is that the new strains don’t cause a new surge in spring while vaccinations go full steam. Maybe a year from now things will be bright enough we can think about limited international travel between some countries that have mostly vaccinated their populations.

  8. The 3 million Americans who’ve flown THIS WEEKEND say your fears are exaggerated. Covid is full of surprises, but the smart money is on a blockbuster summer travel season. And the travel industry knows it: just look at airfares, hotel and car rental prices for the upcoming months. The major risk isn’t the virus, it’s politics and fear — especially when it comes to international travel. The Canadians are now essentially banning their citizens from engaging in int’l leisure travel even though there’s been plenty of Covid in Canada but little of it now. If other countries take this irrational approach, you’ll be vacationing in the USA this summer, but maybe not going abroad (and Biden’s team could help make it impractical for Americans to head overseas, too with extreme Covid testing).

  9. I am traveling this summer regardless, at least one trip to the beach. I have been super conservative, and hopefully I’ll get this vaccine by then, I’m group 4 out of 5 in my state.

  10. As a disclosure, I have not been vaccinated and I am not planning for for doing it unless there is a specific requirement/clear travel benefit. I do not take the annual vaccine either because if I have a flu it is a rather minor one day event. I have been traveling for work and pleasure during the past months (about 1 trip/month) and I am not anticipating this to change. The main problems are the government restrictions and very “thin” flight schedule.
    I think leisure travel will recover very quickly once cases are down. Business is another story that would take a while. Past summer South Carolina hotels enjoyed robust booking and this summer will be no different.

  11. I hope to be able to travel this winter to the UK for vacation. If things are locked down, dangerous or problematic I won’t go. Of course, I will be taking the vaccine and I am currently in the JNJ vaccine trial right now. Everything I have seen leads me to believe this will be around for several years in some form. I have seen some documents in the current vaccine trial that I am in. I can pull out at any time for any reason BTW. I may have gotten the vaccine/or not and will find out later. Probably within the next 30-60 days, if the vaccine is available to my age group in the state of FL. Those who choose not to get the vaccine, that’s fine with me. But they will assume the risks. Those who travel like many here could be exposed to more than the person who goes nowhere or may do a driving vacation once per year if that. People may be getting their second Covid infections by the summer. The people who are currently traveling have their own reasons. Not all are leisure travelers, not all business. This does not mean we are going to seeing huge travel by the summer.

  12. Hopefully herd immunity will be achieved. I read someplace that roughly 50% of Americans take the flu shot each year for decades. Since it seems only half of Americans are willing to get vaccine (might be different stats in each state) hopefully that is enough to achieve herd immunity.
    I agree that masks are here to stay though.

  13. For the anti-vaxers, anti-maskers, pro lizard people conspiracists, I wish your self centered beliefs only impacted yourselves. I am fine with you living in your world. Unfortunately, I cannot segregate myself from your world. You go into my supermarkets, fly on my planes, stay in my hotels. If you could please segregate yourselves or at least identify yourselves, perhaps we could coexist….

  14. These guesses are pointless. Follow Israel and you’ll see what happens when you vaccinate a great majority of the population. Things will be back to “normal” in Israel this summer. International travel will be limited. There is only one important Q for the US, will enough ppl get the vaccine(s)?

  15. The anti-vaxers here hoping to resume international travel vaccination-free may be in for a nasty shock.
    Many airlines will (and do) require proof of Covid vaccination before letting you fly.
    Many countries will require the same, and more before entry is allowed (or if you’re lucky, do 14 days, paid, supervised hotel quarantine)

    Expecting to piggy-back on those sensibly vaccinated folk at home who have contributed to so-called herd immunity may not work either, as if there are too many of the likes of you herd immunity will not be achieved.

  16. It doesn’t matter. The resourceful will still continue to Travel and losers like UA-NYC will continue to stay at home alone, their fingers covered in dried lube and their minds full of rage. I just got back from Ukraine and it was amazing.

  17. @Glenn T–how right you are!

    If only 50% of US adults are vaccinated, that means we–100% of US adults–will have to continue to wear masks and socially distance. Because there will always be that lingering threat of sporadic outbreaks here and there which won’t be controlled without mask usage–or the vaccine. I’ll guess that Covid will eventually taper off, but it will not go away completely. Those anti-vaxxers who are 50 will be 60 in 10 years, then 70, and as they age the likelihood of being affected by Covid increases. The best we can hope for is a mutation to a less-serious variation.

    It’s kind of like the mumps, if only 50% of the population gets the MMR vaccine, then the other 50% is likely to develop mumps at some point in their lives. And possibly, recurrent infections, which may or may not increase in severity, and may or may not leave lasting damage, as mumps damages adult men (testicle shrinkage) who never had the mumps vaccine as a child.

  18. Given that people who have been infected with the whole original SARS-Cov-2 seem to show almost no immunity to the new South African strain, it seems unlikely that an inactivated virus vaccine derived from the original virus would do better.

    That said, you do have a point — when the spike protein keeps on mutating, it is perhaps worth trying to create a vaccine that targets other proteins that may be more stable. The only obvious candidate seems to be the nucleocapsid protein. Also noteworthy is that in the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients, T-cells responding to this N-protein seem to be an important part of the immune response. However, there is a reason that every major vaccine developer chose to focus on the S-protein: the original SARS showed signs of antibody-dependent enhancement with antibodies responding to the N-protein, and this new virus is quite similar. Obviously a vaccine that runs even a small risk of causing more severe disease is absolutely unacceptable.

    I think the more viable path might be creating a quadrivalent vaccine responding to various variants of the S-protein, just like we do with the flu vaccine. The obvious candidate to do this is Novavax, since mRNA doses can’t be arbitrarily increased without running into toxicity issues, and adenovirus vaccines might be less suitable for boosters given the body’s propensity to develop immunity against the viral vector.

  19. Concerning delaying the second dose of the mRNA vaccines, the CDC states that there is too much danger to create even more variants with that approach. Also the inventor of the Pfizer Biogen vaccine stated recently it is not safe to delay the 2nd dose. He is even more concerned if the delay is more than 6 weeks. The immunity from the first dose alone is too little and too short lived to protect people from Covid 19.

  20. @Joe QAnon – you truly are a loser, sycophant supporter of an even bigger historic loser.

    Catch any Satan-worshipping, baby-eating pedophiles yet? Pathetic troll.

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