COVID-19 vaccine rollout: A global race against the clock

Luis Felipe de Oliveira by Luis Felipe de Oliveira | Apr 20, 2021

Being an eternal optimist all my life, I believe that we have now officially entered a new phase of the pandemic. There are plenty of reasons for optimism: vaccinations have increased significantly in recent weeks, a few countries have started easing some of their lockdowns and, in some parts of the world, falling infection statistics show that immunization is beginning to make a positive impact.

Vaccines, coupled with testing and the current health measures in place, present our best way out of this pandemic, yet their rollout has been turbulent and slow in much of the world. The goal is herd immunity or the level of vaccination that shuts down the coronavirus’s ability to circulate in the population. To achieve this, experts say that anywhere from 70% to 90% of the population must be vaccinated – on a global scale, that is indeed a daunting number.  Although we are on the right track, the current pace of 18 million daily vaccinations is still far from where we need to be in order to achieve a significant level of global immunity by mid-summer.

With some places still waiting for their first dose, the effort to beat COVID-19 is in large part now a race against the clock – there is an urgent push to inoculate as many people as possible over the next few months, including those in remote areas and hard-to-reach places.  By the end of it all, according to the Chief of Immunization for UNICEF, many different modes of transportation including boats, snowmobiles, drones, elephants, and camels will have been used to deliver the vaccines to the world’s most faraway corners.

The logistical challenges around getting shots into arms is just one part of the equation in curtailing the pandemic – a number of new vaccines are currently in the late-stage of clinical trials. If proven successful, these new vaccines could add to the larger supply, helping boost availability and generally speed up the process. There are of course other complexities to consider, such as the side effects of some of the vaccines, and the new, more infectious variants of the virus. If these new strains were to prove resistant to the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines, this could significantly affect our pace to the finish line.

Nevertheless, we continue to see progress towards recovery across the world – with more than 900 million doses administered across 155 countries, and new vaccines by additional manufacturers coming to the market, there is now a clearer light at the end of the tunnel. Each step on this journey brings us further along the path to recovery, and I remain optimistic that the second half of 2021 will be brighter for all of us.

We are headed in the right direction

President of the United States Joe Biden promised 100 million vaccinations in his first hundred days in office and, with increasing supply of the vaccines, he was able to meet that goal in less than half the time.

However, thousands of people across the world are still struggling to get a vaccine despite being eligible, leaving many frustrated and angry. The reasons behind the worldwide vaccine shortage are numerous, including limitations on raw ingredients and manufacturing capacity to shifting priority groups and allocation strategies.

According to Oxford University’s Our World in Data, Israel is still leading the global vaccination race, with United Arab Emirates, Chile, United Kingdom, and the United States joining in the Top 5 ranking of countries leading the doses administered. The U.S. vaccination campaign is accelerating rapidly, with more than 120 million people – or roughly more than one-third of the population- having already received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation is administering a record breaking 4.65 million doses a day on average. Given where the US was tracking before they started the jabs, the rate at which the vaccines have been administered is impressive and seen as a good sign by many.

Meanwhile north of the border, Canada’s per capita vaccination numbers are lagging behind those of 50 other countries. The rush to vaccinate Canadians has grown more urgent as Canada has emerged as one of the few countries in the world with significant outbreaks of three different variants occurring at the same time. According to the latest data, more than 8.5 million doses, or 20.2% of the Canadian population has received at least one dose, which is a disappointing and concerning pace for us, considering that we are based in Montreal, the world’s capital of civil aviation.  

Moving across the Atlantic Ocean, The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed its disappointment in the speed of the rollout of the vaccines in Europe, calling it unacceptably slow, with only 16% of EU’s population having received the first dose. The positive news is that last week marked the beginning of the end of Britain’s lockdown. With more than 32 million people having received at least one dose of the vaccine, the country took its first major step in a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on 21 June, when the government has said that it hopes to lift almost all of the restrictions in England.

Importance of equitable access

While some of the richest countries in the world are hoping for a return to normalcy as soon as this summer, an estimate from The Economist found that many parts of the developing world are not on pace to have widespread vaccination of their populations until 2023 or 2024. Enough shots have been given out to vaccinate around 4.6% of the global population, according to a Bloomberg tracker, but distribution so far has been centered in wealthy, western countries.

In March, the United Nations launched a new global campaign, Only Together, aiming to advance fair access to COVID-19 vaccines across the world. The initiative underscores the need for global solidarity to ensure that no country is left behind, and I am a firm believer that we must all continue to work together to overcome the current crisis. No one will be safe until everyone is safe, and it is critical that governments across the world join efforts to stop the virus by ensuring that vaccines are as widely available to everyone. For that reason, tests and vaccination together will play a key role to help markets re-open safely.

The future of travel: Digital health passes

Digital health passes are something we had hardly heard of in the past, however it is clear now that they will play a very important role in the restart of global travel.

Simply put, it is a matter of time until digital documentation showing that passengers have been vaccinated or tested for the coronavirus become mandatory to travel – WHO is already working on international standards for digital vaccination certificates. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has confirmed Canada is among the countries considering a vaccination requirement for international travellers, while the European Union is already working with agencies and private developers to create a national vaccine passport programme that uses scannable codes.

Countries around the globe are setting up their own systems in anticipation of their utility. In Israel, a “Green Pass” that confirms vaccination status has become an essential tool for daily life, allowing access to gyms, cinemas, restaurants, and other public spaces. Launched in February, the pass links to national health ministry data and gives users a scannable code—displayed on a phone or another digital device—that confirms their COVID-19 status.

One of the major challenges surrounding the digital health passes is the source from where the apps will pull the passenger’s health information from.  Israel’s Green Pass works so well because it extracts information from a single national health dataset, however in countries like Canada and the U.S. this would be very difficult to implement due to the various levels of jurisdiction across provinces and states.

With over 100 different providers of health information apps currently available on the market, it is clear that technology will play a very important role to aid in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward, the key will be to establish an interoperable health data trust framework for safe border reopening and cross-border travel. Moreover, it will be good to see the use of health passes across the entire travel and tourism sector and beyond, including cruises, hotels, and venues such as concert halls must be considered.

I would like to invite you all to join our webinar What health and vaccine certificates mean for airports. An introduction on 28 April, which will discuss the importance of the health certificates, how they will work, and what role they will play in restarting the aviation industry from a standstill.

Critical months are ahead of us

The next few months will be crucial in the battle against this historic crisis. Although we have made significant progress, there is still a lot we do not know about this disease. While the situation remains volatile and challenging, my message is: keep moving forward.

The distance towards the finish line will depend on our ability to stay focused and disciplined. We have every reason to have confidence that we will win this battle, however we must remain vigilant and keep the current pace of progress.

I truly hope that by the summer months we will start to see some signs of recovery on the international markets, similar to the current pace of domestic markets. The vaccines and tests will play a key part in maintaining our employees and the public safe and the governments around the world confident.

We need to continue to get the vaccinations efficiently and equitably distributed to the public, and above all we must continue the effort of international solidarity and collaboration.

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Director General, ACI World
Luis Felipe joined ACI World as Director General in June 2020 bringing with him vast experience in commercial and technical aviation. He successfully led the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA) between October 2017 and May 2020, promoting positive change in the organization. Prior to joining ALTA, Luis Felipe served as World Fuel Services’ Vice President Supply Development for Latin America and Caribbean where he was responsible for improving World Fuel’s aviation fuel business in the region. He is a Chemical Engineer and graduated from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and has a postgraduate qualification in Finance from the University of São Paulo, an MBA from Dom Cabral Foundation in São Paulo, and Post MBA from Kellogg University in Chicago.
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