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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The new normal for air travel in 2021 could include two, three or even more COVID-19 tests per trip until vaccines are widely available.

The big picture: Global travel could begin to see a comeback later in 2021 as people get vaccinated and international borders reopen. But the healthiest people — those most likely to travel — will be vaccinated last. In a partially vaccinated world, passengers will still need to wear masks and get tested before, during and after their journey.

  • "For the next two to four years, different people will have different vaccines but not everyone will have a vaccine. What that means is everyone on the flight still has to be tested," says Simpliflying CEO Shashank Nigam.

Driving the news: Delta Air Lines is offering "COVID-free" flights for essential travel between the U.S. and Europe. But passengers must have three negative COVID tests — two before departure and one upon arrival in Amsterdam or Rome — in order to avoid the usual 14-day quarantine.

  • The rules are slightly different for each destination, so travelers need to know what kind of test (PCR or antigen) will be accepted and when to get it.
  • Travelers returning to Atlanta from Rome will need yet another airport test before the return trip.

But, but, but: Entry requirements are evolving since it's the individual governments — not the airlines — that set the rules depending on the course of the virus.

The good news: Faster, more convenient testing options are emerging.

  • This week, the FDA granted emergency authorization to Ellume's over-the-counter antigen COVID-19 test that can produce results at home in about 20 minutes.
  • One new PCR test uses a simple mouthwash rinse to detect COVID with 99% accuracy, says its distributor, Simpliflying. The test, which still requires the sample to be overnighted to a lab, is approved for use in Europe and is seeking FDA authorization.

What's next: Vaccines could one day be required for international travel, but there are no uniform requirements across the world, which means getting vaccinated in one country might not guarantee entry into another.

  • The U.S. and some western countries have approved Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine and Moderna's could be next.
  • But China and Russia have developed their own vaccines, and some Middle Eastern countries have already approved a vaccine by Sinopharm, a Chinese-state owned pharmaceutical company.
  • A total of 61 COVID-19 vaccines are in clinical trials around the world, according to the New York Times' vaccine tracker.

What to watch: Some airlines and airports are starting to roll out CommonPass, a global platform created by the World Economic Forum and Swiss-based non-profit The Commons Project.

  • CommonPass allows people to digitally document their COVID-19 status — through test results and eventually, vaccinations — while protecting their health data privacy.
  • The system taps its CommonTrust Network of public and private partners to assesses whether the information comes from a certified lab or medical system and then whether it satisfies the health screening requirements of the country they want to enter.
  • Validation is provided through a simple digital code but the underlying health information stays private.
  • CommonPass is designed to work with other digital health apps from companies like IBM and Clear.
  • Yes, but: "It's not a silver bullet that's going to solve everything," Aaron McMillan, United Airlines' managing director, operations policy and support, tells Axios.

The bottom line: COVID-19 testing will be part of the hassle of traveling for the foreseeable future.

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

Ex-CDC director Tom Frieden on the next COVID-19 vaccines

Americans fortunate enough to receive COVID vaccines now, outside of clinical trials, are getting shots made by either Pfizer or Moderna. But newly released data from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggests that more vaccines could be on the way, with J&J's requiring a single dose.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the news and why it matters with Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, as COVID-19 variants spread globally.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.