H ow should countries define what it means for a traveler to be “fully vaccinated”? And when should travelers need a booster? Those are questions being pondered by the travel industry after the European Union proposed limiting Covid-19 vaccine validity to nine months.
This move is emblematic of a shift in thinking in the fight to curb Covid-19, where countries now prioritize vaccination status instead of a traveler’s country of departure. Last summer, when the delta variant of the coronavirus was surging around the world, studies revealed that vaccine protection diminishes over time.
Now, as the new omicron variant of the coronavirus is circulating around the world, booster shots are becoming a critical issue for travelers who got their first rounds of the vaccine in early 2021.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) — the trade association representing the vast majority of the world’s airlines — is calling for “caution” and recommending that the validity of the European Union Digital Covid Certificate (DCC) be extended to 12 months instead of nine.
First, says the group, there are logistics to consider. “If booster shots are mandated to maintain the validity of the DCC, it is vital that states harmonize their approach to the length of time allowed between the point of full vaccination and administering the additional dose,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe. “The nine months proposed by the Commission could be insufficient. It would be better to delay this requirement until all states are offering booster jabs to all citizens, and for a 12-month validity to give more time for people to access a booster dose, considering the differing national vaccination approaches being taken.”
Beginning last summer, several European countries set their own maximum validity periods for Covid-19 vaccine certificates. In July, Croatia set a requirement that travelers be fully vaccinated no more than nine months before arrival, which was later extended to one year. Austria and Switzerland followed with one-year limits on vaccine validity. (This week, Austria became the first European country to go back into a nationwide lockdown and one of the few countries in the world to introduce a national vaccine mandate.)
The E.U.’s proposal of a nine-month validity window is too short and “creates many potential problems,” says Schvartzman. “People who received the vaccine before March, including many health workers, will need to have accessed a booster by 11 January or may be unable to travel. Will E.U. states agree on a standardized time period? How will the requirement be harmonized with the many states that have developed COVID passes that are reciprocally recognized by the E.U.?”
Moreover, says Schvartzman, the world should be focused on getting initial vaccine doses into the most vulnerable among the unvaccinated population. “Given that the majority of air travelers are not in the most vulnerable groups, allowing a 12-month time period before a booster is needed would be a more practical approach for travelers and a fairer approach for vaccine equity,” he said.
But the European Union appears to be on the verge of confirming the nine-month limit, with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control — the E.U.’s equivalent of the CDC — saying last week that “evidence emerging from Israel and the U.K. shows a significant increase in protection against infection and severe disease following a booster dose in all age groups in the short term.”