Vaccination campaign must be an avenue of hope for travel & tourism industry

Sustaining Bio-Diversity through tourism conservation
Photo: Philip GEBU

After a very successful year of return, all hopes were on the beyond the return campaign only for our hopes to be derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we speak we are living in the new normal and we are all adjusting with life wearing of mask, practicing social distancing and washing of hands and so on. many businesses have laid off workers, hotels are struggling as well as tour companies, airlines as well just to mention a few. The new normal is something we are all not comfortable with and we all want our lives to return to what they use to be.

Scientists went to work trying to come up with a vaccine which will eventually help contain this pandemic and eventually enable things to be as they were if not closest to. Eventually, our scientists have made some discoveries and came up with some vaccines. Countries have begun ordering them for their population and we in Ghana should be proud of being the first country in Africa to receive the vaccines.

President Akufo-Addo together with First Lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo received the first dose of the 600,000 COVID-19 vaccines aimed at convincing the public to follow in his footsteps. The exercise, which included a similar one by Vice President Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia and wife, Samira Bawumia was also aimed at boosting public confidence in the new vaccines.

Prior to that, the President addressed the nation to help dispel the conspiracy theories that seem to have engulfed the minds of many Ghanaians.

“Fellow Ghanaians, I know there are still some who continue to express doubts about the vaccine, others have expressed reservations about its efficacy, with some taking sides with conspiracy theorists who believe the vaccine has been created to wipe out the African race. This is far from the truth. Taking the vaccine will not alter your DNA, it will not embed a tracking device in your body, neither will it cause infertility in women or in men,”.

However, instead of the President word building the needed confidence, there seems to be more doubt in the minds of many citizens. I was listening to a radio discussion where the host opened the phone lines to sample public opinion on whether the first shot taken by the President will build their confidence. It is sad to note more than 90% of callers were still not convinced.

This means, the education and campaigns must be intensified and as more people take the vaccines and report none of the so called conspiracy theories, then can we be sure of winning the battle and building public confidence. In any case are vaccines anything unheard off. Vaccines have been with us for many years and have helped eradicate diseases like Polio which is almost out of the surface of the earth. So why can we have hope in this vaccine and ensure the tourism industry which has been badly affected by this pandemic bounces back to life?

What are vaccines?

Ghana was the first country to receive vaccines as part of the global COVAX scheme aimed at providing poorer nations vaccines to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ahead of the launch of its campaign after receiving 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca shots, health authorities in Ghana, like in other countries, are facing rumors and skepticism about vaccines, driven mostly by mistrust of pharmaceutical companies and other beliefs.

Ghana has recorded 84,023 coronavirus cases and 607 deaths, with nearly 200 deaths in the past month alone, hit by a second wave of infections.

“In order to bring COVID-19 under control, a vast majority of Americans (upwards of 75 to 80 percent) will need to get vaccinated,” says Michelle Williams, epidemiologist and dean of faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But vaccine rollout is already taking longer than expected—only about three million of the promised 20 million doses were injected into American arms in December. The U.K. says it might take a year to vaccinate its population.

Every country needs herd immunity for travel to resume the way it did pre-pandemic. “We are part of a global community whose health, economy, and futures are linked and impacted by the pandemic,” says Dr. Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity and associate professor of population health and internal medicine at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School.

It may be tough to reach that herd stage in the U.S., though. Just 47 percent of people who responded to the National Geographic and Morning Consult poll said they’d get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it was available, and more than a quarter (27 percent) disagreed with that statement. Still, 58 percent of respondents said they would eventually get a vaccine.

Sleeves rolled up, masks on

The new COVID vaccines are better than predicted at preventing vaccinated people from getting sick. Health experts were hoping for a vaccine with 50 to 70 percent efficacy. Clinical trials show Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine—approved now in dozens of countries including the U.S.—is a whopping 95 percent effective. It’s fully effective a month after the first dose (you need a second jab at least 21 days later) and it starts to work 10 to 12 days after the first shot. The Moderna vaccine is similar.

However, it’s still not clear if vaccinated people can spread COVID-19. “We don’t yet have data on whether any COVID vaccines reduce risk of spread/transmission; right now data only shows that vaccines reduce risk of illness,” says ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel one and there’s still a lot to learn about it. The CDC says more than half of all COVID-19 infections are spread by asymptomatic people; 35 percent before the infected person feels any symptoms and 24 percent by people who never develop symptoms. Kenyon says that “leaves open the possibility that some vaccinated people could still get infected without developing symptoms, and could then silently transmit the virus.”

Everyone wants to go on vacation again, but the priority for vaccine developers was preventing illness and death, not restarting cruises. “Trials thus far have only tracked how many vaccinated people became sick with COVID-19 compared with unvaccinated people,” says Kenyon. While there’s a good chance the antibodies triggered by the vaccine will result in a lowered likelihood of spreading the virus to others, we won’t know until more studies are done.

That’s the key reason why, a month after getting your first shot, you can’t just shop in a crowded Moroccan souk like it’s 2019. Until research tells us more, Mullen says “travelers must not abandon the measures we already know help reduce the risk of transmission—masks, good hygiene, physical distancing, and not traveling if one has symptoms.”

It’s reassuring that the majority of Americans in the National Geographic and Morning Consult poll (67 percent) plan to continue to always or sometimes wear masks during flu season, when running errands and grocery shopping (63 percent), and if there’s bad air pollution (64 percent).

Getting the world immunized won’t be quick or easy. According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance—a movement of health and humanitarian organizations including Amnesty International and Oxfam—rich countries secured 54 percent of the most promising vaccine candidates, even though they have only 14 percent of the world’s population. Without urgent action, the People’s Vaccine Alliance says that only 10 percent of the populations of 67 developing countries can be vaccinated in 2021. That puts citizens of popular tourism destinations like Cambodia, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Uganda at risk.

Live Nation/TicketMaster is exploring how to verify that people attending its events are either vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID test, which local authorities may require. Tourist attractions, stores, and restaurants could follow suit.

Several “vaccine passports” are being marketed, but CommonPass looks the most promising. A collaboration between the World Economic Forum and nonprofit The Commons Project, CommonPass is a secure way to validate individuals’ COVID test and vaccination credentials and is being piloted internationally. The first government to sign on to the CommonTrust Network was Aruba, allowing travelers to securely prove their COVID status to enjoy its Caribbean beaches by February 2021.

Until there’s an abundance of approved and delivered vaccines, it’s all but impossible for anyone outside government-identified priority groups to get a shot. Yet, as soon as the U.K. approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, travel agents in India started fielding requests for quick vaccination trips to the U.K., even though that would require a complex web of dual citizenship, quarantines, and more. Attention is now on the U.S. and Russia as possible vaccine destinations.

Mark Warner, a trade lawyer and principal of MAAW Law in Toronto, says that, before booking a vaccination vacation, you should ask yourself how can you be certain you’re “reliably being injected with the advertised approved vaccine” versus a counterfeit. Also ponder how you can “be certain that the chain of custody has been reliably maintained at all stages,” including that proper temperatures were maintained. On top of that, will your vaccination certification be valid?

“This is not about me, it’s about we,” says Ashton. “This pandemic has unroofed a dichotomy between responsible behavior for our own personal health and that for others’ personal health.” COVID-19 has reminded us that we live in a shared world—for all of us to be healthy and prosperous, we need to take care of each other.

Safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines mean that life, including travel, are likely to get back to normal one day. Assuming that vaccines also protect against most virus mutations as well as against spreading the virus, COVID restrictions should end once herd immunity is achieved. The whole world needs that herd immunity, and achieving that in 2021 is unlikely. Until then, reminds Mullen, “the privilege to travel somewhere should not come at the expense of the residents of those destinations.”

The new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna seem to be remarkably good at preventing serious illness. But it’s unclear how well they will curb the spread of the coronavirus.

That’s because the Pfizer and Moderna trials tracked only how many vaccinated people became sick with COVID-19. That leaves open the possibility that some vaccinated people get infected without developing symptoms, and could then silently transmit the virus — especially if they come in close contact with others or stop wearing masks.

If vaccinated people are silent spreaders of the virus, they may keep it circulating in their communities, putting unvaccinated people at risk.

“A lot of people are thinking that once they get vaccinated, they’re not going to have to wear masks anymore,” said Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University. “It’s really going to be critical for them to know if they have to keep wearing masks, because they could still be contagious.”

In most respiratory infections, including the new coronavirus, the nose is the main port of entry. The virus rapidly multiplies there, jolting the immune system to produce a type of antibodies that are specific to mucosa, the moist tissue lining the nose, mouth, lungs and stomach. If the same person is exposed to the virus a second time, those antibodies, as well as immune cells that remember the virus, rapidly shut down the virus in the nose before it gets a chance to take hold elsewhere in the body.

The coronavirus vaccines, in contrast, are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill.

Some of those antibodies will circulate in the blood to the nasal mucosa and stand guard there, but it’s not clear how much of the antibody pool can be mobilized, or how quickly. If the answer is not much, then viruses could bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others.

“It’s a race: It depends whether the virus can replicate faster, or the immune system can control it faster,” said Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s a really important question.”

This is why mucosal vaccines, like the nasal spray FluMist or the oral polio vaccine, are better than intramuscular injections at fending off respiratory viruses, experts said.

The next generation of coronavirus vaccines may elicit immunity in the nose and the rest of the respiratory tract, where it’s most needed. Or people could get an intramuscular injection followed by a mucosal boost that produces protective antibodies in the nose and throat.

The coronavirus vaccines have proved to be powerful shields against severe illness, but that is no guarantee of their efficacy in the nose. The lungs — the site of severe symptoms — are much more accessible to the circulating antibodies than the nose or throat, making them easier to safeguard.

“Preventing severe disease is easiest, preventing mild disease is harder, and preventing all infections is the hardest,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona. “If it’s 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic disease, it’s going to be something less than that in preventing all infections, for sure.”

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