The widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines could be a matter of weeks away in the United States, which will be a key component of corporate travel industry recovery but also is presenting new policy, technology, and ethical considerations with which corporate travel programs must grapple.

U.S. President Joe Biden this week announced that he was pushing up his deadline for states to make vaccines available to all adults regardless of age, occupation, or health status to April 19, a few weeks earlier than his earlier goal, which several states have already reached. About 42 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, according to the White House, and while the U.S. is leading the world in terms of the raw number of vaccines administered, other countries—including Israel and the United Arab Emirates—are even further ahead in terms of per capita vaccinations.

Vaccine Requirements?

So, how should corporate travel programs handle this increasing availability? Can they require employees to be vaccinated, at least as a prerequisite for business travel?

The answer to that question “varies greatly depending on where you are” and is best left to each company’s legal department to determine, said Andrew Miller, director of America’s partnerships at International SOS. Companies also need to consider questions of equity, said Josephine Johnson, director of research for The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute. That means making sure not only that all employees have equal access to get a vaccine but also that there are exceptions in place to handle those who are unable to get a vaccine for medical reasons, she said.

The real demand is for access and the ability to find accurate information. [Clients] need to know for given locations what the requirements are for the vaccine and what vaccines are available, and all of that information is changing on a daily basis.”

– International SOS’ Andrew Miller

TripActions manager of customer success Ryan Patrick O’Neill said he’s seen several clients promoting vaccinations among their employees, through such methods as offering gift cards or other incentives to those who are able to get them. As vaccines become more widely available in the future, companies might be able to set up their own onsite vaccine clinics for employees, just as many do with flu shots today, Miller said.

In the meantime, getting a grasp of the situation is the biggest priority for companies, he said.

“The real demand is for access and ability to find accurate information,” Miller said. “We have clients with locations all around the world, and they need to know for those given locations what the requirements are for the vaccine and what vaccines are available, and all of that information is changing on a daily basis.”

How best to manage their employee’s data internally is another top concern for companies, TripActions senior business development manager Elton Dabiri said. “Privacy is such a concern, so how do companies themselves monitor the health records and vaccine status?” he said

This week, TripActions introduced new features that addressed both questions. It added a new traveler notification feature that provides updates on changes to restrictions—new quarantine or testing requirements, for example—for a traveler’s itinerary. It also added a new centralized hub for travelers to provide their own vaccine information as well as recent Covid-19 test results, which automatically are deleted one week from entry as a data-security measure.

Addressing the Controversy

The need to manage health data will stretch far beyond travel. As numerous health passports to facilitate travel already are in various stages of development and testing, the wider possibilities around vaccine status are beginning to emerge. Some states, including New York, are facilitating the development of their own passes that businesses and venues can use to verify a person’s vaccination or health status. It’s not difficult to envision a world where such a tool is needed not just to board an airplane or cross a border but also to attend a sporting event, go to the theatre or dine in a restaurant.

As such, the political lines are beginning to emerge as well. Governors of some states—Texas and Florida, for example—are pledging to block such platforms. For those considering them, as with potential employer vaccine requirements, the equity question remains on making sure vaccines are widely available to all populations and that proper exemption are etched before any venue requirements come in place, Johnson said.

The public view is divided as well. A recent J.D. Power survey of more than 1,500 travelers in airports showed that a solid majority—65 percent—thought digital vaccine passports were a “good idea,” a percentage in line with a recent survey of travel managers conducted by the Global Business Travel Association. Only about half of those who thought it was a good idea in the J.D. Power survey thought it should be required, however.

Regardless, travelers likely will need to create folders on their mobile devices specifically to manage the variety of apps that are emerging, TripActions’ Dabiri said. Travel managers likely will be at the mercy of their own company’s travel needs in terms of which one they use, Asian Development Bank head of travel Dean Fowles said at a recent CAPA Live virtual conference.

“We’ll need to have mass acceptance in the majority of places where we travel to,” Fowles aid. “Personally, I’m eyeing the [International Air Transport Association] travel passport, but at this point, there are three or four good products out there, and we don’t know which one is going to be taken up by the majority of countries.”

In an optimistic view, it could be a short-term issue, J.D. Power head of travel intelligence Michael Taylor said.

“All epidemics end and this one will as well,” Taylor said. “By the time some of these things get legs, there could be no real demand for them.”

Restoring Confidence

While vaccines are key to restarting business travel, they remain only part of the solution.

The IBM Institute for Business Value on Thursday released research, based on a survey of 15,000 adults across nine countries, showing that the vaccines will be a big confidence boost for business travelers, with the number of people comfortable with traveling up two to four times across most countries post-vaccine.

“Vaccination will have the biggest impact on the comfort level of people in Mexico, Germany, and Brazil,” according to IBM’s report. “Across geographies, business travelers in the U.S., India, and China were most comfortable traveling before receiving the vaccine, but even these countries will see a notable vaccine bump.”

That confidence boost is less pronounced in older travelers, however. Only a quarter of respondents over the age of 55 said they would be comfortable traveling for business after they are vaccinated, according to the report.

All epidemics end and this one will as well. By the time some of these [digital passports] get legs, there could be no real demand for them.”

– J.D. Power’s Michael Taylor

Companies will need to continue to build up duty-of-care efforts even as vaccines become more widespread, including traveler track to see, for example, whether any employees were at a hotel that later is reported to have a Covid-19 outbreak, International SOS’ Miller said. Companies also should be prepared for employee comfort level to return in stages.

“An employee might be comfortable to take a train to New York but not to take a flight to Houston,” he said.

They also will need to continue to monitor restrictions even amid high vaccination rates. Chile, for example, has had one of the world’s highest vaccination rates but recently reimposed lockdown and border control measures amid a new surge. As ongoing research determines how effectively and for how long vaccines can prevent infection and transmission, prevention measures such as face coverings and distancing will remain part of the equation.

“Vaccines are not the only layer of protection, so it makes sense not to lay all your eggs in that basket,” Johnson said.