Coronavirus: No international tourism industry until vaccine ready - business leader

The man tasked with getting the business community to help with the Government's response to COVID-19 fears our tourism industry won't be back until a vaccine for the disease is ready.

The sector is one of New Zealand's biggest exports, worth tens of billions to the economy, but at the moment doesn't really exist thanks to the closing of our borders to foreigners and the pandemic alert level 4 lockdown in place.

The lockdown at this stage is set to last four weeks, but many expect it to be either extended or potentially lifted only temporarily before being put in effect time and time again.

A recent highly influential report from Imperial College London predicted it could be years, rather than weeks. 

"The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package - or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission - will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) - given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed."

Rob Fyfe, former CEO of Air New Zealand, is working with Police Commissioner Mike Bush to liaise with the private sector in response to COVID-19, which hasn't killed any Kiwis yet but has claimed more than 23,000 lives overseas in the past few months. 

He told The AM Show on Friday it's likely we'll have to reinvent our economy once the "rubble" settles.

"I suspect it's linked to a vaccine. Until you know that you're not reimporting a virus into the country, it's going to be very, very hard to let people across our border." 

Many labs across the world are racing to develop a vaccine, with some fast-tracking human trials. But developing vaccines is a slow process, with researchers needing to be absolutely certain it not only works, but doesn't have damaging side effects before it can be put into mass production and distribution - which also takes time. It can sometimes take a decade for vaccines to go through the typical regulatory systems, the Guardian reports.

Luckily the Chinese scientists who first isolated the virus coded its genome and made it available to researchers worldwide as soon as they could. Also, some companies had already started work on potential vaccines for diseases caused by coronaviruses following the SARS and MERS outbreaks of the last two decades.

"Like most vaccinologists, I don't think this vaccine will be ready before 18 months," Annelies Wilder-Smith, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Guardian on Friday (NZ time). 

"My single-minded focus right now is what we can do to support the Government to stop the virus in its tracks because that will give the country the best opportunity to recover," said Fyfe. 

"Once we've achieved that outcome, then we can move to think about, how do we draw ourselves out of this lockdown phase? And then how do we power our economy up again? ... It will be a different economy, right? Some things won't be the way they were."

Fyfe said he's been "bombarded" with offers from businesses around the country wanting to help.

"For example, the Zuru team - Nick and Anna Mowbray - along with the Warehouse Group identified for me, at the tail end of last week, 5 million masks to bring into the country. There's a team of people working on a project down in Christchurch to produce ventilator machines for hospitals - that will be critical. Sam Morgan and Stephen Tindall, they've got in and powered up that organisation to significantly increase their production over the next six months. 

"There's people working on apps, there's people working on food programmes... some of those things can happen at a local level. I'm trying to figure out predominantly how we harness the things that are going to make a real significant move on the scale of our response to this crisis." 

New Zealand's total number of confirmed infections is at 283 but expected to rise over the next couple of weeks as more Kiwis arrive home. After then, it's hoped they'll start to decline, as the effect of the lockdown starts to shine through in the statistics.