Zooming into a Brighter Future

February/March 2021 – There has been some very good news about COVID-19. As vaccines have started to roll out around the world, the big question has been whether vaccines will show the same efficacy in real life use that they have in small scale tests. The Pfizer vaccine showed a 95% efficacy in clinical trials. One of the large Health Maintenance Organizations in Israel has indicated that only 31 out of 163,000 fully vaccinated (received two doses) members came down with COVID-19 in the 10-day period after the vaccine was deemed at full strength.

By contrast, an equivalent sample of non-vaccinated Israelis were 11 times more likely to come down with the coronavirus. These two data points translate into a finding that the vaccine was 92% effective – a number within the standard deviation of the initial 95% finding.

In addition, those who did get the coronavirus had generally light symptoms. There were no hospitalizations — basically headaches and a mild feeling of discomfort and illness. As a practical matter, the vaccine prevents the disease.

Now nothing is guaranteed; new variants of COVID seem more transmissible; COVID could mutate in a way that makes the vaccines less effective, and booster shots may be required on a long-term basis to deal with such mutations. Still, it is difficult to overstate the importance of these findings in Israel. Though it could take quite a period before we have enough vaccine to immunize everyone and, of course, there is no assurance that the other vaccines out there will be as effective. It means we have a preventive measure and, with time and money, we can vaccinate the world back to normalcy.

What this might mean for the food industry is less certain. The National Restaurant Association conducted a recent survey and found that 110,000 restaurants, roughly 17% of all U.S. restaurants, have permanently shut down since the pandemic began to rage. The same survey indicated that the full-service restaurants that have remained open have experienced a 36% decline in sales during the pandemic.

There is no indication that people are eating less, so this massive amount of food consumption that would have taken place in restaurants has moved to retail sales.

What this all means for a newly-vaccinated world must be the focus of industry attention. Certainly some people will have been traumatized by the experience and remain hesitant to go out, so one can imagine continuing demand for delivery services and high sales at retail.

Yet, Americans have short memories. Once things are safe, they may well feel they want to go out, eat at restaurants, go on vacations, etc. Horrible statistics, such as restaurant closings, can change in a moment with record openings of all those vacant restaurants.

Retailers are likely to be disappointed. They hope that, due to COVID, experienced consumers will have learned to love cooking, and retail sales will plateau at a new higher level. It is possible, but just as likely, that Americans will burst out of the pandemic with more money in their pockets since they have been house-bound and will zoom off on vacations and eat out more frequently than ever

Remember that at the end of World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic and the associated slump led to the “Roaring 20’s” — some of this was a bounce back from these bad times but, also, it was an outgrowth of technological progress. This included the development of technology of mass production, the mass electrification of the country, the availability of consumer credit and mass marketing techniques.

What is unclear yet is whether this moment of despair hides a growth in extraordinary technology. The delivery services and drive-thrus could save people a great deal of time; mRNA vaccines could not only end the pandemic but be effective in combatting many diseases such as cancer and lead to a big lengthening of life expectancy. What kind of new innovations are about to burst out is difficult to know.

It seems likely that change will be the order of the day but not likely at all that the changes we made during the pandemic will continue as a new normal. In other words, we may well have come to realize the advantage of having delivery or place-in-car pickup of heavy items such as canned goods, frozen foods, etc. We may reimagine the supermarket to be a much smaller physical place but filled with a much broader array of prepared foods. We may imagine many more things being packaged and ordered for delivery, but we may visit physical stores with the expectation of more cooking, more sampling, more opportunities to eat in with coworkers for lunch or friends for dinner.

While we have been focused on the pandemic, Aerion Supersonic just announced its plan to start the manufacture of its new next-generation supersonic jet in 2025. To make it happen, it announced plans to build a new headquarters and a manufacturing plant near the Melbourne-Orlando airport in Florida. The plane is designed to exclusively utilize synthetic fuels and has what is called “Boomless Cruise” technology to fly at supersonic speeds without causing a sonic boom. Spike Aerospace is working on the fastest of the new supersonic planes and promises to go from New York to London in 2.5 hours! Boom Supersonic just broadened its leadership team with executives and board members from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Alaska Airlines and elsewhere and signed an engine partnership with Rolls Royce. The Federal Aviation Administration just moved to allow limited testing of supersonic flight over land. This enables manufacturers to test the success of their various noise-reduction efforts. These massively expensive efforts all suggest that a lot of things are happening below the surface and we, as a food industry, need to be prepared to zoom out of this pandemic.              DB