Reports that the US Centers for Disease Control has notified public health officials to prepare for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine to be ready by November 1 could be good news for the cruise industry.
According to a report in the New York Times, the CDC gave officials technical specifications, including requirements for shipping, mixing, storage and administration, for two candidate vaccines labeled “Vaccine A” and “Vaccine B” that are believed to be those being developed by Pfizer and by Moderna, both of which require a second “booster” shot after 28 days apart.
However, it is believed that when a vaccine first comes out there will only be enough initial supply for around 3%-4% of the population, raising the question, who should get it first.
According to the report in the NYT, the CDC guidance said health care professionals, long-term care employees, essential workers, and national security employees, would be the first to receive the vaccine with priority also given to people 65 or older, and communities at high risk of contracting the virus and experiencing severe disease.
COVID-19 Vaccine alone won’t get cruises back this year
With only a few million doses expected to be available by November and with prioritization to certain groups, and the fact that it will take months for sufficient doses to be available and administered for a large section of the population, it is unlikely that cruise lines will be able to resume operations this year solely on the basis of vaccination.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that cruise lines won’t be able to resume sailing in 2020.
Europe is already back in the water without a vaccine
But in Europe several cruise lines have resumed operations.
In Italy, MSC cruises resumed sailings on its flagship Grandiosa in mid-August with no reported on-board outbreaks of COVID 19 so far. MSC implemented a strict health and safety protocol that included double-buffer testing with an antigen swab, followed by a PCR molecular test for those who came out positive on the first test. The procedure led to a party of French tourists being denied boarding after one of their party tested positive on both tests. Remaining in Italy, Carnival Corporation’s Costa Cruises is due to resume services on September 6 and will also test all passengers prior to embarkation.
In Germany, Royal Caribbean Group’s joint venture TUI Cruises is expanding its cruise restart with a third ship due to set sail in September when the Mein Schiff 6 will depart from the Greek island of Crete on a one-week voyage. The move comes after successful sailings by the Mein Schiff 1 and Mein Schiff 2 at 60 percent capacity without any reported cases of COVID-19 infection.
Several crew members on the Mein Schiff 1 however did test positive prior to boarding, with the company saying that its health protocols, in which crew are tested and then isolated for 14 days, were working.
Carnival Corporation’s German subsidiary AIDA Cruises will resume operations on November 1, with the AIDAmar setting course on seven-day voyages to the Canary Islands, while the AIDAperla will follow on November 7, with voyages starting and ending in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. AIDA had originally planned to resume operations in August and then delayed to September as its flag state, Italy, did not provide approval in time for the restart.
While Italy and Germany have seen a successful start to cruise operations, in Norway a serious outbreak that resulted in dozens of crew and passengers infected on board the MS Roald Amundsen, leading to the suspension of cruising in the Nordic country.
In June, Hurtigruten Cruise became the first ocean line to resume sailing when the newly refurbished MS Finnmarken set sail from Bergen for a 12-day round trip journey along the Norwegian coastline to Kirkenes and back.
Learning from the European experience
Cruise executives in North America have been looking closely at the European experience.
Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain said: “We’re not through this yet, but there are more bright spots and bits of good news than there have been for quite a while. We are closer to the other side of this crisis every day.
“It’s also encouraging to see cruising starting up in other parts of the world. In Germany, our joint venture company, Tui Cruises, has been operating cruises since late July. In Italy, MSC Cruises started operating last week and has attracted a lot of really very positive publicity.”
Fain also spoke of rapid COVID-19 testing being a potential “game changer”
“This new test that we’re hearing about, with its ability to do it [to test] based on saliva, that will really be a game-changer because it’s, it’s fast, it’s easy and it will allow us to do so many tests that we can really get this thing under control,” he said.
Carnival Corp. President and CEO Arnold Donald has also said a return to cruising is still possible this year.
In an interview with Seatrade Cruise News last week, Donald said “It’s definitely possible we could sail again in 2020 from the US. ”
“If you go back just two or three months, who would have thought there would be any possibility of cruising in Italy? … Now Italy is cruising again. They’ve mitigated the spread. Society is starting to move about. Is it too soon? Is it premature? Is it perfect timing? We’ll all know that a month or two from now,” Donald said.
Hope on the horizon
It remains to be seen whether the European restart will swing the CDC toward a lifting of its no-sail order come the end of September, whether it will wait for a vaccine to be available for all, or whether it will opt to allow a resumption of cruising with a combination of pre-embarkation and even on board testing, together with social distancing measures and vaccination for high risk passengers.
One thing however is for sure, after months of stormy seas, there is hope on the horizon.