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Vaccine Tourism: COVID-19 Vaccine Disparities Spurring a New Model of Medical Travel

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The last few months have seen governments across the world make aggressive efforts to approve and roll out coronavirus vaccines to rein in the outbreak across the world. With millions of tourists across the world eager to travel as global restrictions ease gradually, some countries and states are looking to launch “vaccine passports” to curb further spread and waves of the infection. This has inevitably created a high demand for vaccinations in the face of limited local supply. This mismatch has spurred tourism stakeholders to launch “vaccine packages” not only to provide swift vaccinations but also to revive inbound tourism. 

Medical tourism has always leveraged disparities in healthcare delivery to shift patients from one country or state to another. Cost of care, quality and timeliness of care, unavailability of specialists, and a superb patient experience have always been the drivers of medical travel. For vaccine tourism, there’s not much difference. Wealthy people are traveling miles and crossing borders to secure fast vaccinations spots, skipping long queues in their home countries or states.

Vaccine tourism first came to light in December 2020 when reports emerged of Indian tour operators that signed deals to transport guests to countries where they could secure a COVID-19 vaccination. Clients would pay as much as $US1777 per person to visit a health center abroad for a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination. The fee also covered mandatory isolation for a specific period. The package also included a tour of the city before the guest returns home.

Soon enough, other travel agencies bought into the concept, pushing vaccine tourism into a thriving global industry. One Florida-based travel agency was among the first to cash in on the high vaccine demand, running trips to Israel for under-65 Israeli nationals. This package saw large numbers of Israeli nationals take the trip to Israel to get inoculated faster as Florida, at the time, had prioritized residents over 65. 

Roy Gal, the owner of the agency, said clients come into Israel and get vaccinated on the same day after residents had been vaccinated for the day. The package is priced at $850 for round-trip tickets and around $2,000 a month to rent a house from quarantine to the time for the second shot—which may take around two months. 

Knightsbridge Circle, a UK-based travel agency and concierge company, also joined the burgeoning industry, offering COVID-19 vaccine trips to the Emirates for its closed group of members over the age of 65. The deal offers members the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine developed by China.  German and Norwegian travel agencies soon began to advertise “vaccine vacations” to countries where residents had already been vaccinated. 

Within weeks, this vaccine travel strategy gained traction, with governments scampering to seal vaccine travel deals with other countries to revive and boost their tourism industries. 

In February, Dubai launched a vaccine travel program that allows remote workers to “live and work near the sea” with added bonuses of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination and having a tour of Dubai. In a similar move, Cuba and Maldives announced their plans to offer visitors a COVID-19 vaccine. The Cuban government offered visitors a trip to enjoy “the beach, the Caribbean sea, mojitos” in addition to swift COVID-19 vaccination. 

Affluent Latin Americans also began to cross borders to the U.S. to bypass long vaccine waiting times in their home countries. Most Latin American countries have limited COVID-19 vaccine supply, much of which is being administered to healthcare workers only. This had led to a boom for chartered flights in parts of the U.S., as affluent residents from these countries fly to the U.S. to get inoculated quickly. Even within the U.S., tens of thousands of Americans travel from other states to states that have a robust vaccination program, including Florida, Arizona, Mississippi, and U.S. Virgin Islands. 

This model of medical travel is evolving into a global business, largely driven by vaccine inequity. Nations with limited vaccine supply or delayed rollouts are the targets of travel agencies and stakeholders who offer enticing deals that allow people to secure a shot. In Peru, for example, less than 5% of the country’s 32 million people have received a dose of the vaccine, forcing thousands of wealthy citizens to travel elsewhere to get the shot.

To date, more than 7.4 billion vaccine doses have been purchased, more than half (3.9 billion) of which were purchased by high-income countries. Upper-middle-income countries secured 1 billion doses and lower-middle-income countries contracted for the other 1.8 billion doses. Low-income countries bought none. 

This trend is poised to continue as doctors warn that one in four nations will not receive any coronavirus vaccine supply this year. South American and African countries top the list of countries that will behind in their vaccine rollout, while on the other extreme, countries like the U.S., U.K., and Canada will continue to enjoy widespread vaccinations. 

Fostering this inequity is the disparity in vaccine purchases vis-a-vis COVID-19 disease burden; only six of the 13 manufacturers developing COVID-19 vaccine candidates have reached agreements to sell doses to low and middle-income nations. The U.S., for instance, has reserved more than 300 million vaccine doses but accounted for one-fifth of all cases globally. Similarly, Japan, Australia, and Canada combined have reserved more than one billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, but these three countries have a combined disease burden of less than 1%. 

Further, only high and upper-middle-income countries have secured mRNA vaccines—including from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both vaccines require cold chain distribution and storage, which are not readily available in low-income countries. 

The growing trend of countries requiring “vaccine passports” will also fuel vaccine tourism. Recently, EU leaders launched a “Digital Green Certificate” to resume travel across borders. Countries within and outside the bloc have also commenced plans to launch vaccine passports as a requirement for entry through their borders. These countries say they would also accept visitors who come in to get a shot.

Although, this has faced criticisms from experts and public health agencies, who explain that such moves may fuel discrimination and infringe on people’s rights to make health decisions without force. Medical experts have also argued that vaccine passports may be insignificant in curbing the pandemic as evidence proving that the vaccines prevent transmission of the virus is lacking. 

Although these ethical and social considerations may stifle the expansion of vaccine tourism, people will continue to seek COVID-19 vaccinations from other countries, to get inoculated faster and bypass long waits in their home countries. For many, getting the shot and safeguarding their health fast enough is a priority. Not just that, the added bonus of visiting a travel destination amid the pandemic is relieving.

While vaccine tourism may be faced by ethical and social limitations, it may not be without its benefits: for now, people who would have received a shot months or years from now can get one within a day or two in another country. Even years down the line, if COVID-19 vaccine supply approximates, vaccine tourism may still continue a disparities and delayed distribution may linger. For industry experts, fusing vaccination offers to travel packages and medical travel plans not only helps to jump-start the crippled global travel industry and global economy, but it also speeds up global vaccinations. 

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