In 1918 the influenza pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide. The virus was identified in 1933 and a vaccine was licensed for human use in the U.S. three decades later in 1945. Polio was identified in 1840 in a medical report, but the vaccine wasn’t developed until the 1950s. Until 2020, the fastest vaccine developed, for the mumps, was the result of four years of research and testing.

Vaccine development typically takes 10 to 15 years but medical urgency and worldwide need combined with pharmaceutical advances and blank check funding changed all that in 2020. The coronavirus spread quickly across borders, countries and oceans. Lockdown measures were not enough to contain its infectivity. On March 30, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services started a program coined “Operation Warp Speed” to expedite a COVID-19 vaccine.

By mid-summer, Moderna and Pfizer published data on early phase clinical trials. In December, both vaccines were authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The speed of scientific advancement — less than a year — was a triumph for the global health care community.

Vaccine development is one positive outcome from the pandemic and there have been many others. Even educational initiatives — mask usage, hand washing and social distancing — have reduced the severity of the 2020 flu season and are paving the way for safer travel.

“There has been enormous conjecture about the future of travel,” said Daniel Richards, CEO of Global Rescue. “There is no question we are entering a new normal. How do we predict and mitigate these kinds of events in the future? With science and technology.”

Here are a few of the innovations Global Rescue experts are following.

Breathalyzers and 3D Swabs

No one enjoys the feeling of a swab in their nasal cavities — or the anxiety while waiting 24 to 72 hours for the results of a PCR test.

With time of the essence, researchers went to work on new technology solutions to increase travel safety.

Researchers at Indiana University developed a breath testing device similar to a breathalyzer, which tests blood alcohol levels, to identify the scent in breath altered by COVID-19. Train travelers in Indonesia tested the GeNose breathalyzer, developed by the University of Gadjah Mada. Just by breathing in a bag, travelers will have a positive or negative reading within two minutes.

A Texas-based company, in collaboration with Texas A&M University and the U.S. Air Force, developed a device called Worlds Protect. Students around campus use a disposable straw to blow into the machine, which resembles a kiosk and have results in less than a minute. Researchers at the University of Pittsburg are turning a marijuana breathalyzer into a coronavirus breathalyzer.

Some research has made it out of the lab to complete initial trials and gain the approval of the FDA. Ohio State recently received FDA approval for two innovations: a new recipe for the viral transport media, a critical sterile solution needed to transport testing swabs, and 3D printed testing swabs, which are faster to produce than the traditional swabs. Both address the critical shortage of test kit components.

It will take time for any new technology to gain mass market acceptance.

“We are seeing a lag by governments and large organizations behind science and technology,” said Richards, who serves on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board at the U.S. Department of Commerce. “We need to figure out how to get these organizations to catch up and realize the new reality, which is a good one with travel rebounding in a v-like manner. Hopefully we can influence them to open up more quickly.”

Digital Health Passports

Traveling during a coronavirus pandemic requires several pieces of paper: a passport, any vaccination cards for international travel to specific countries, prescription copies and now, documentation with coronavirus test results.

Richards, told The Washington Post testing and vaccination information could soon be stored electronically.

Organizations and corporations are developing technology to make international travel easier: a trackable, verifiable and portable system that could keep pace with a vaccine rollout expected to cover the entire world’s population by 2024.  From the IATA Travel Pass sponsored by the International Air Transport Association to VeriFLY’s mobile app, trials of new systems are underway.

“How individual health information is tracked, stored or shared potentially creates issues with data privacy, control and civil liberties,” Richards said. “Creating a system that meets the necessary security requirements, respects individual’s privacy rights and works with low-tech paper options is going to be challenging.”

Coronavirus Control Centers

When jet hijackings became a worldwide threat, airport security was stepped up, making luggage screening and metal detectors commonplace. Likewise, COVID-19 has triggered a worldwide need to identify and prevent infectious disease spread, making travel ports — like airports, rail stations, cruise ship terminals and border crossings — ideal locations for testing. In January 2020, three major airports, San Francisco (SFO), New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX), implemented enhanced health screenings to detect ill travelers traveling to the United States on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, China.

Alaska instituted arrival screening for visitors in June 2020. It was the first U.S. state to do so. At the Juneau International Airport, the testing site is located on the airport’s lower level near baggage claim. At the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the 24/7 testing site is next to baggage claim carousel 3.

In October, United Airlines was the first airline to roll out a new COVID-19 testing program for passengers traveling to Hawaii from San Francisco International Airport.

The concept has been piecemeal, but the precedent for a new travel process — coronavirus control centers in major airports across the globe — is there. New products, like faster tests, will give way to new processes such as testing at transportation hubs.

“Transportation hubs equipped with continuous flow air testers, breathalyzers and response facilities may become common,” said Richards.

Travel Protection Services

Travel insurance was a booming industry before the pandemic. Americans spent nearly $4 billion on travel insurance in 2018, according to a 2019 US Travel Insurance Association study.

Underwritten by large insurance companies and regulated by state agencies, travel insurance typically insures the financial investment of a trip, covering such things as the cost of lost baggage and canceled flights, according to the U.S. Department of State. It may or may not cover costs of medical attention you may need while abroad — and it often didn’t provide coverage for coronavirus.

“If you didn’t have a crisis and travel risk management plan before, you need one now,” Richards said.

Travel protection memberships offer more than financial compensation for cancelled or interrupted flights. Members are able to access services like medical evacuation, security extraction, travel intelligence and 24/7/365 advisory services. And during the pandemic, Global Rescue’s travel protection services are vital:

  • Advisory Services. If members need testing for COVID-19 before taking a flight, they can call Global Rescue to find the nearest and most appropriate health care facility.
  • Case Management. If a life-threating illness or injury occurs, Global Rescue’s medical team can help with case management, translation services or advisory services.
  • Medical Transport. Our operations team will handle the logistics of getting a member home safely. If the emergency medical situation includes COVID-19, all aspects of ground and air evacuation are in compliance with CDC regulations.

Click here to learn more.