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REUTERS NEXT-Travel body rejects compulsory COVID-19 shots as experts say herd immunity not close

* Health experts see obstacles to rapid herd immunity

* Travel body chief says compulsory shots ‘discriminatory’

* Number of cases worldwide has passed 90 million (Adds British PM and EU-Moderna talks)

PARIS/SYDNEY, Jan 11 (Reuters) - The head of a global travel organisation on Monday opposed making COVID-19 vaccinations a requirement for travellers in the fight against the pandemic, despite scepticism about reaching herd immunity this year.

Several health experts said during the Reuters Next conference that the mass roll-out of coronavirus vaccines would not result in enough people having immunity to be able to effectively stop COVID-19 from spreading.

Some policymakers have proposed immunisation should be compulsory for air travel as the world steps up the battle to curb the spread of COVID-19, and Australia’s Qantas Airways has said it plans to introduce such a requirement.

But Gloria Guevara, chief executive of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said such moves would be similar to workplace discrimination.

“We should never require the vaccination to get a job or to travel,” Guevara, whose organisation represents a sector that has been badly hit by the pandemic and accounts for as much as 10% of global employment, told a panel at Reuters Next.

“If you require the vaccination before travel, that takes us to discrimination.”

She was supported by AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes, who said global testing protocols remained key to unlocking travel.

Their comments contrasted with a majority of online panel viewers in a snap poll who supported a vaccine requirement.

The contrasting views highlighted the difficulties reaching agreement on ways to defeat COVID-19 as the death toll from the virus and its economic fallout mount.

More than 90 million people are reported to have been infected by the novel coronavirus globally and about 1.9 million have died from the disease since it first emerged in China in December 2019, according to a Reuters tally.

MASS VACCINATION

A growing number of countries are rolling out COVID-19 vaccines such as those developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, by Moderna and by drugmaker AstraZeneca alongside Oxford University.

Many countries are in lockdown and many are preparing to start vaccination campaigns. A number of those that have already begun their roll-outs are trying to buy more vaccines as concerns mount over new COVID-19 variants.

Underlining those concerns, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain was in “a race against time” to roll out vaccines, and the European Union is in talks with Moderna to order more vaccines, according to EU officials and an internal document.

Dale Fisher, chairman of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Outbreak Alert and Response Network, voiced caution about the chances of countries quickly reaching herd immunity.

“We won’t get back to normal quickly,” he told Reuters Next. “We know we need to get to herd immunity and we need that in a majority of countries, so we are not going to see that in 2021,” Fisher told Reuters Next.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, told the conference some governments were over-reliant on the coming vaccines and this meant herd immunity could not be achieved in the near term.

Irma Hidayana, the Indonesia-based co-founder of LaporCOVID-19, an independent coronavirus data initiative, said public trust in vaccines could have an impact on the roll-out.

Another problem, Fisher said, was uncertainty about the ability of the virus to mutate further and, with wealthier nations at the front of the queue to get vaccines, the WHO has said there is a “clear problem” that low- and middle-income countries are not yet receiving supplies.

For more coverage from the Reuters Next conference please click here or www.reuters.com/business/reuters-next

To watch Reuters Next live, visit here

Writing by Jane Wardell, Laurence Frost and Timothy Heritage, Editing by Alexander Smith

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