Booster shots could be the key to travel — or a roadblock to ridding the world of COVID-19

Sep 3, 2021

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Americans may soon be able to get a COVID-19 booster shot.

Health experts say getting a vaccine significantly reduces serious COVID-19 symptoms and is key to getting the world to a “new normal.” But as the U.S. prepares for another vaccine rollout, other countries around the world are still waiting for their first and second injections.

Is this prolonging the pandemic? It’s complicated, health experts say.

Here’s what you need to know about booster shots and travel — and what this means for vaccine equity worldwide.

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The latest

Top officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Sept. 3 called on the White House to cut back on its plan to offer booster shots to recipients of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, according to The New York Times.

According to the report, the agencies are researching whether only some Pfizer vaccine recipients need a booster. Health experts are reportedly trying to determine how much of the Moderna vaccine would be necessary for a booster.

Do I need a booster shot to travel?

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

While health experts and the White House maintain that Americans should get a COVID-19 booster shot (starting with the immunocompromised), the jury is still out on whether they’ll be necessary for travel.

Some countries have gone ahead and put policies in place that will almost certainly require people to get a booster shot to avoid additional testing requirements. As I reported late last month, countries may not specifically require travelers to get COVID-19 booster shots — but they may set expiration dates on vaccine credentials.

People inoculated in early clinical trials would be the first travelers in need of booster shots if visiting a country with vaccine credential expiration dates. At least two countries, Austria and Croatia, say travelers must have received their COVID-19 vaccine less than 270 days before arrival to be considered fully vaccinated. Travelers who fall outside that window will have to get a booster shot, or comply with entry requirements for unvaccinated visitors.

But it’s important to note that, at this point, just two countries have put concrete policies in place.

Austria and Croatia are members of the European Union and, so far, no other member country (or the EU itself) has implemented vaccine expiration policies. And even being outside of the window (which is just under nine months) won’t get you kicked out of either country. Both still allow entry for U.S. travelers outside of the time limit — they’ll just have to pay extra to get tested.

For its part, the travel industry is torn about health mandates — let alone requiring booster shots for travel.

Some airlines have started requiring their employees to be immunized against COVID-19, but they also forcefully pushed back against the Biden administration earlier this year for proposing a domestic testing mandate for travelers. So, if you’re concerned that not having a booster shot will prohibit you from traveling, it doesn’t seem like there will be a resolution, or a universal policy, any time soon.

In the meantime, your CDC vaccine card should get you into most countries with vaccine requirements with no obstacles.

But while the U.S. approves booster shots and some countries put expiration dates on vaccine credentials for travel, other countries are still waiting for a first dose.

Using booster shots to battle COVID-19

The U.S. surgeon general last month said the country’s “most vulnerable populations will be eligible” for a booster vaccine first, including health care providers and residents of long-term care facilities.

That might ring hollow in other places around the world where billions remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, and the arrival of booster shots raises concerns about equitable access to vaccines.

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, is a global initiative working with governments and manufacturers to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries. Lower-income countries have their supplies bought in bulk through the program, which, in theory, makes it so all countries get a fair share of vaccines.

But in reality, the program has been far from equitable: Nearly 50% of adults in high-income countries are fully vaccinated, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. In most low-income countries, less than 2% of adults are fully inoculated.

Health leaders from WHO and other organizations released a joint statement calling vaccine inequality a “dangerous divergence” in COVID-19 survival rates and in the global economy.

“The time for action is now,” the statement said. “The course of the pandemic and the health of the world are at stake.”

These are dire words, but the situation appears to be urgent. For instance, just 3% of people on the African continent — home to more than 1 billion people — have been fully vaccinated, according to Africa CDC.

Fortunately, there have been some positive developments. Johnson and Johnson, the makers of the one-shot vaccine, recently reversed a decision to export doses made in Africa to Europe. Those vaccines — and unused doses already in Europe — will go to African countries, according to the Associated Press.

But are booster shots, which are going to wealthy countries, helping to end the pandemic? Or are they merely prolonging the pandemic by giving vaccines to people who already have them, instead of unvaccinated countries?

As destinations reopen to tourists, many have also implemented vaccine mandates, which bar or restrict unvaccinated travelers.

“The inequity, as with all other health care resources and resources in general, will always be there,” said Dr. Jenny Yu, the senior manager of medical integrity at Healthline Media (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), through email. But she also stressed that “more vaccinations and not less” help stave off COVID-19 variants.

A WHO senior official recently said that booster shots keep the “most vulnerable safe” and didn’t take away “from someone who is still waiting for a first jab.” But later, WHO director Tedros Ghebreyesu asked countries to hold off on booster shots to give low-income countries the chance to catch up.

For people seeking guidance, the inconsistency from the world’s largest health organizations must seem confusing. But others say the more people vaccinated anywhere, the sooner the pandemic can get under control.

“Booster shots for protecting the locally vulnerable and a global strategy for all to be vaccinated in an efficient manner” is effective at stamping out the virus, Dr. Yu said.

Both booster shots and giving everyone everywhere access to vaccines will be crucial to ending the pandemic for good. Both can be accomplished at the same time, but it will be up to high-income governments to share their vaccine supplies with lower-income countries to ensure that all people have access to a COVID-19 shot.

Bottom line

Booster shots are an essential way to shore up immunity to the COVID-19 virus. But they can also be seen as a privilege, especially in places where vaccine rollouts haven’t started.

In a coronavirus-conscious world, vaccinated travelers have much more freedom of movement than those who are unvaccinated. And as travel restarts — and Americans go to get their booster shots — they will have to take that into consideration, especially when traveling to parts of the developing world.

Featured photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

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