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Explainer | COVID passport: Is airline travel going to be more difficult?

In ideal conditions aircraft and facilities are equipped to deal with respiratory infections, but not all is dependent on the plane’s tech. Human behaviour is likely the more determinant factor.

November 25, 2020 / 12:50 PM IST
Representative image

Representative image


In ideal conditions aircraft and facilities are equipped to deal with respiratory infections, but not all is dependent on the plane’s tech. Human behaviour is likely the more determinant factor.The aviation sector was among the ones to feel the full and immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with services being shut worldwide since March and only resuming in bits and pieces across the world from September.

However, as many airports continue to find COVID-19 cases among passengers that disembark at airports, the future remains uncertain. Thus the big question as governments have now begun reviving air travel, is how safe is it?

The South China Morning Post reported that China tested thousands of workers from the cargo handling section of Shanghai Pudong International Airport after a series of new cases in the city were linked to it, Zhou Junlong, vice-president of the Shanghai Airport Authority said.

Flights from the airport were cancelled on November 24 as authorities race to contain the outbreak.

Scope of India’s own Air Bubble agreement with Oman was reduced by half from 10,000 seats to 5,000 seats, from November 9 after few passengers tested positive on landing.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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While, Hong Kong has banned Air India flights from Delhi till December 3 after a few passengers on its flight earlier this week tested positive for COVID-19 post-arrival, a senior government official said on November 20. This is the fifth time Air India's flights from India have been banned by the Hong Kong government for bringing passengers who tested positive for the viral infection after arrival.

Follow our LIVE Updates on the coronavirus pandemic here

Domestically, Maharashtra has made RT PCR test mandatory for people entering the state by air, train or road from Delhi, Rajasthan, Goa and Gujarat.

What do health authorities say?

The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) has was straightforward in its warnings: Time spent time in security lines and airport terminals, close contact with other people and touched surfaces, and difficulty in social distancing on flights due to limited space may increase your risk for exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Why is air travel so difficult?

In ideal conditions aircraft and facilities are equipped to deal with respiratory infections, but not all is dependent on the plane’s tech. Here, human behaviour is likely the more determinant factor.

Planes have in-built safety measures like air filtration and ventilation systems to counter spread of respiratory viruses by catching virtually all aerosol or droplets and replace it with fresh air six times an hour – however this can only protect you so much from a person sitting nearby without a mask and opening coughing, Vox points out.

What factors that increase risk?

For example, the chances of one contracting COVID-19 in enclosed spaces increases when social distancing is limited up to a point. Anthony Harries, a senior adviser at the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease told Vox that long-haul flights and fuller flights are riskier since passenger and crew movement is increased.

Harries pointed out that if not the plane, airports could also be risky. “They’re closed in, no open windows. You don’t know what the ventilation is like, if they’ve got decent filters like on airplanes.”

Also Read | Passengers testing positive for COVID-19 on arrival: Air India's fault?

If someone on the flight eats, drinks, talks, shouts, moves around the aisles too much without their mask, they increase the risk of potentially spreading the virus and infecting others on board – your safety is thus not always in your hands alone, the collective has to follow ground rules with equal vigour.

Besides this, crowding during boarding and disembarking are also risks.

As Ed Nardell, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases and a co-author of the Harvard analysis, noted: “All these systems can be defeated if people are not wearing masks.”

Check here for the latest updates on all COVID-19 vaccines

So, what then? COVID Passport to the rescue… at least that is the hope

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) on November 24 said that it is working on a mobile application that would function as a “COVID Passport” for travellers to demonstrate their coronavirus-free status, Bloomberg reported.

Airline are excited by the prospect, and Pieter Elbers, the head of the Dutch arm of Air France-KLM said there is need for “global rules and standards as a step forward for the industry”; while Qantas Airways CEO Alan Joyce said vaccination would be “necessity” for international travellers and would likely become a pre-boarding requirement globally.

What is a COVID Passport?

The mobile application will function as a Travel Pass. It will hold a digital copy of the passengers’ passport, besides displaying their test result and proof of vaccination (when out). It will also list rules for entry to countries and details about the nearing labs, IATA said.

The details will be available to view for airport authorities via QR code scans. The app will be based on the association’s existing IATA Timatic system long used to verify documents. “The app will use block-chain technology and won’t store data,” Alan Murray Hayden, head of passenger and security products at IATA told Bloomberg.

Pilot testing for the programme will begin this year with IAG SA (British Airways parent), followed by roll out for Apple devices in Q1FY21 and then Android devices in April 2021. Discussions with one government have been positive and IATA expects more to “get on board”, it said.

Is this a first-of-its-kind?

No. International SOS has tested the “AOKpass” on flights between Abu Dhabi and Pakistan and the World Economic Forum (WEF) along with non-profit Commons Project Foundation tested its “CommonPass” on flights between London and New York – both are also pending trials on the Hong Kong-Singapore air bubble.

International SOS co-founder Arnaud Vaissie said there is a “race to establish a global standard and deploy technology. “There is massive pent-up demand, but tremendous fear about traveling and this is what we are trying to mitigate.”

Follow our full COVID-19 coverage here
Jocelyn Fernandes
first published: Nov 25, 2020 12:46 pm

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