Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain has expressed hopes that new ultra-rapid COVID-19 tests could be a “game-changer” that will enable the COVID-19 pandemic to be brought under control.
Speaking with the company’s new Chief Medical Officer Dr. Calvin Johnson, in a video released to travel advisers, Fain said that lately there have been more “bright spots and bits of good news” adding that “we are closer to the other side of this crisis every day.”
Encouraging signs in Europe
Fain said he was encouraged by seeing cruising starting up in other parts of the world, such as in Germany, where Royal Caribbean’s joint venture TUI Cruises has been operating cruises since late July; in Italy, where MSC Cruises started operating and where Costa Cruises plans to start operating in just a few weeks.
While Fain said Royal Caribbean still planned to “restart slowly and methodically,” and would “learn from these early efforts,” he seemed enthused at the possibilities offered by rapid testing.
“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.
Rapid advances in technology
Johnson, who was appointed Chief Medical Officer in July said the new tests speak to the “ rapid advances in technology that we’ve seen in this era of this pandemic. So if there is a bright spot … in this really difficult time that we’ve been having it is that technology has really advanced remarkably and has come up with some results like this. Some which we’re going to see most likely kind of coming to market and being available to us in relatively short order.
FDA approves Abbott rapid antigen COVID-19 test
Indeed, not long after the video was released the US Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for a rapid antigen test produced by the American pharmaceuticals giant Abbott Laboratories that can provide results within 15 minutes.
According to the FDA, the test is similar to a pregnancy test. The FDA website provided the following description of how the test works: “ A healthcare provider swabs the patient’s nose and twirls that sample on a test card with a testing reagent added. After waiting 15 minutes, the healthcare provider reads the results directly from the testing card. One line indicates a negative result; two lines indicate a positive result.
The test is expected to cost $5 and Abbott is said to be developing a phone app that will provide people who test negative for the virus to display a “digital health pass” on their phone.
Head of Health Sail Panel cites ‘significant entry’
Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb who co-chairs Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line’s joint Health Sail Panel tweeted: “This significant entry could help democratize testing, making more tests more available to people in more austere settings that don’t have all the trappings found in a medical office; including schools.”
Antigen tests have been successfully used by MSC Cruises for pre-embarkation screening of passengers. According to the MSC health and safety protocol, passengers that test positive for a rapid antigen test, which identifies whether a person has antibodies to the disease, are then referred for a PCR test that identifies whether a person is currently a carrier of the virus. Passengers testing positive for the PCR test are denied embarkation to the voyage.
Ahead of the MSC Grandiosa’s second sailing earlier this week, a group of 13 French tourists were denied boarding in Genoa, Italy after one of the party failed a swab test prior to embarkation.
Carnival Corporation’s Italian subsidiary Costa Cruises has said it will also test all passengers for COVID-19 prior to embarkation when it resumes services in September.
In a statement, August 25, Costa Cruises said that it would perform antigenic Covid-19 swab tests for all passengers prior to embarkation as part of its recently announced health and safety protocol, which will also include health screenings and temperature checks at every access and exit to the ship, as well as physical distancing, reduced capacity and the wearing of masks in public spaces.
Passengers that test positive with the rapid antigen test, which identifies whether a person has antibodies to the disease, will be referred for a PCR test that identifies whether a person is currently a carrier of the virus. Passengers testing positive for the PCR test will be denied embarkation to the voyage.
Royal Caribbean’s joint venture TUI Cruises of Germany has also announced that from September, passengers will also be required to provide a negative corona test before being allowed to board.
Another company that has said it is looking to rapid testing as a solution is Virgin Voyages, the new cruise brand of British travel and media tycoon Richard Branson, which is due to launch operations after a COVID induced delay in October 2020 with the Scarlet Lady.
In a press release when unveiling its “Voyage Well” health protocols, Virgin said that one of the key pillars of the plan “rapid and effective COVID-19 testing for all sailors [Virgin-speak for passengers] and crew prior to embarking.”
Cruise stocks soar
Trvl Trend has already speculated that it is seeming increasingly likely that in the absence of vaccination, pre-embarkation and perhaps even on-board testing will become the gold standard for the cruise industry.
In addition to the Abott test approved by the FDA, there are several such options being developed: Israeli and Indian scientists are working together on a test that they say could provide results in just “tens of seconds” without complicated chemical testing.
Cruise stocks meanwhile soared on the news of the FDA approval of the Abbott test kit.
At time of writing, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings was up 8.4% Carnival Corporation by 7.3% and Royal Caribbean by 6%.