A Surprising Snag Travel May Run Into With Vaccine Passports This Winter


Covid-19 vaccines are phenomenal. And they’re about to open up a lot of travel possibilities: so-called ‘vaccine passports’, only we don’t know how long those passports will be valid as a result of virus variants and uncertainty over how long they provide protection.

Much of the world is ordering not just first injections but also booster doses, in case these passports need to be extended. The U.S. hasn’t done this yet.

Vaccination Opens Travel, But For How Long?

Vaccination is key to opening borders in the near- and medium-term. Greece is already open (as is Croatia) while the rest of Europe is expected to follow for the vaccinated this summer. That’s the idea of ‘vaccine passports’ but the unanswered question is,

  • how long will vaccine passports be good for?
  • is the U.S. prepared to offer vaccine passport renewals?

Vaccine effectiveness may wane, and new variants may require tailored boosters to maintain their strong effeciveness.

Will Booster Shots Be Required To ‘Renew’ Our Vaccine Passports?

Vaccine manufacturers are recommending booster shots. Dr. Anthony Fauci, though, shot back and said it’s not up to pharmaceutical companies, it’s a decision that will be made by public health officials, and we won’t even know until the fall. Although after the FDA’s vaccine chief endorsed boosters Fauci changed his tune.

There are numerous problems here. We don’t know how long the vaccines will work. First that’s because people haven’t been vaccinated long enough to really measure. And second because testing for antibodies along doesn’t really answer the question. Some expect memory t- and b-cells to provide lasting immunity from vaccines even after antibodies wane, the way they seem to for prior infection with the virus.

We also don’t know how effective they’ll be against variants that arise, though the mRNA vaccines appear to remain highly effective against current known variants.

And since we don’t know how long vaccines last, we don’t know how long vaccine passports will be good for.

The U.S. Isn’t Ready To Offer Vaccine Passport Renewals

Europe has already ordered booster doses from Pfizer. Australia has ordered both initial vaccination shots and booster doses from Moderna.

And while the U.S. has a large supply of vaccine, including of vaccines not yet approved for use, we haven’t ordered boosters yet and are potentially falling behind in the queue with other large orders already being placed around the world. If boosters are needed, will they be available in the U.S.?

I’ve been worried over the last couple of months about lack of booster shot supply in the U.S. and what that would mean both for the pandemic and for the ability of Americans to travel once some countries consider our ‘vaccine passports’ to have ‘expired’ without boosters.

I raised this issue with my boss at an in-person work event last week (it was awesome!). He’s fairly well known and I’ve identified him before though I tend to keep my travel and work lives separate.

He felt that Pfizer basically knows they can’t leave the U.S. behind the way Canada fell behind by not placing an order early enough – that they’re almost certainly reserving doses for when the U.S. places an order because it would be too costly to them not to do so. Of course Moderna is completely beholden to the U.S. which funded its vaccine’s development and is supporting its booster strategy trials as well.

Will People “Self-Renew” Their Passports?

Supposedly the elderly and those at most risk will receive priority, so perhaps they will be able to renew their vaccine passports but if supplies are tight the rest of us won’t be?

On the other hand the Pfizer-BioNTech shot is highly effective against known variants of the virus even in its current form, regardless of any tailored booster that may be introduced. Anyone can get a vaccine shot in the U.S. now (who is 12 years old or older). And there’s little data being checked – do a walk-in appointment and say you need a vaccine, you may not be entered into a system until later. Get the shot in a different state and there’s likely no possible checking of whether you got a first shot. And I’ve heard of no penalties for forgetting you were fully vaccinated already and going in for a self-prescribed booster. Will people do this?

Government Policy Needs To Catch Up With The Science, And Be Prepared

The CDC has updated its guidance so that masks are no longer required for those that have been vaccinated, unless of course they’re traveling. Aircraft interiors are, apparently, riskier than indoor concerts, bars and restaurants.

Vaccines are more effective against the virus under this guidance than prior infection, since those who have recovered from Covid-19 don’t receive the same dispensation to remove their masks. Yet the U.S. requires a negative test to re-enter the country by air by vaccinated passengers, but not from those who have recovered from the virus in the past three months. Go figure.

The U.S. doesn’t have its policy act together, and it doesn’t have its vaccine booster shot act together. These represent threats to travel, though of course the booster issue is a potential threat to public health.

Gary Leff May 22, 2021 at 06:11PM

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