New travel restrictions from the Biden administration aimed at preventing unvaccinated people coming to the United States will be particularly felt in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where great disparities and lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines have left most of the population unprotected against the deadly virus.
The new rules, which White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said will begin in early November, could also ban some vaccinated travelers from entering the country if they have received vaccines from vaccine manufacturers who do not. are not recognized by the World Health Organization.
The White House said last month it was considering banning travelers who have received COVID-19 vaccines who have not received emergency clearance from the WHO. The United States has only authorized three vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – but the WHO emergency use list is much larger and includes vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm. But it currently does not include Russia’s Sputnik V or Cuba’s Soberana, which some countries in the region have used to boost their vaccine supplies.
A spokesperson for the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency “is actively working with vaccine experts regarding which vaccinations will be accepted [and] the age at which the requirements will begin to apply.
The CDC will provide more information on the requirements in the coming weeks, she said.
European and Brazilian travelers, who have been excluded from the United States for more than a year, will likely welcome the measure, but others fear it because of its potential effect on regional travel in the Americas.
Regardless of the decision taken by US authorities, many Latin American and Caribbean nationals would be excluded from the United States at a time when visa approvals have already been delayed by COVID-19 and restrictive embassy staff , and could possibly create more diplomatic friction in a region that already feels ignored by its closest and most powerful neighbor.
“This disproportionately affects developing countries like Guyana,” said Oneidge Walrond, South America’s Minister of Tourism and Trade, who fears Sputnik may not be on the list approved by the United States.
Believing that vaccination was the only way out of the pandemic, Guyana turned to the Russian-made vaccine earlier this year, purchasing 200,000 doses at $ 20 each, after being unable to obtain one vaccines made in the United States. Although it has joined a number of Caribbean countries by passing COVID entry requirements for international visitors – proof of vaccination and negative COVID-19 PCR test must be presented within 7 days of travel – country believes it will now be punished by the new US requirement after being unable to obtain ‘other vaccines.
“We think this is unfair and underscores and deepens the divide between the haves and have-nots,” Walrond said.
Pan American Health Organization director Dr Carissa F. Etienne said on Wednesday that only 37% of the 653 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been vaccinated, while countries like Nicaragua do ‘have not yet reached 10%. Haiti, which has administered only about 75,220 doses of the Moderna vaccine donated by the United States, has vaccinated less than 1% of its population.
With many people without access to vaccines, the United States started this summer ship 40 million doses to the region, primarily through the WHO’s global vaccine access platform known as COVAX. But tensions over vaccine availability in one of the hardest-hit regions of the world have already erupted, even among partners like Colombia, which has already received six million doses donated by the United States in its address to At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Colombian President Iván Duque spoke of the “unprecedented” gaps in immunization coverage, adding a veiled criticism of the US recall plan.
“While some countries acquire additional doses six or seven times [the size of their] population and are announcing third booster doses, others have not applied a single dose that gives them hope, ”he said.
Millions of people in the region have received vaccines produced by Russia, China, India and Cuba that have not received emergency clearance from the WHO. The rules will also highlight regional inequalities, as poorer countries struggle to immunize their citizens amid low supply and vaccine reluctance, and international efforts like COVAX remain slow to deliver promised doses. .
“We continue to urge countries with excess doses to share them with countries in our region, where they can have a vital impact,” Etienne said. She said PAHO, which is the World Health Organization’s regional office for the Americas, was trying to speed up vaccinations in the Americas, including purchasing vaccines and scaling up vaccine manufacturing in the region. .
Although COVAX was set up to help poor and middle-income countries obtain lower-cost doses of vaccine, PAHO Deputy Director Dr Jarbas Barbosa said it will not achieve the goal of providing enough vaccine to immunize 20 percent of the population of participating countries. .
Cubans are in a particularly difficult situation because the government refused to participate in COVAX and instead developed its own vaccines. The government also did not accept the United States’ offer to accept donated vaccines, two senior officials in the Biden administration said last week.
After a year and a half of government restrictions on overseas travel, many Cubans are eager to visit family and friends abroad when airports open in mid-November. Still, they will likely face a new hurdle to come to the United States, as the vast majority of Cubans receive locally produced photos of Soberana and Abdala.
A minority of the population receives the Sinopharm vaccine made in China which has emergency WHO approval. Cuban authorities said the island is leading vaccination efforts in the region, with 80 percent of its 11.3 million people having received at least one dose. However, only 56% are fully immunized because Cuba’s vaccination program requires three doses with a gap of several weeks between injections.
US rule may put additional hurdles on Cuba’s plans to export its vaccines. So far, the country has shipped vaccines to Venezuela and Nicaragua and signed a contract to sell 10 million doses to Vietnam.
The Finlay Institute, the Cuban state-owned manufacturer of Soberana vaccines, is already in contact with WHO to seek agency approval. Dr Vicente Verez Bencomo, director of the Institute, said the government is investing in upgrading production plants to meet export requirements.
“We are helping Cuba to participate in the prequalification process,” said Barbosa. “We have already had a meeting with the WHO and the vaccine producers. Our interest is that all vaccines can participate in the WHO prequalification process, as this will increase the supply of vaccines that we can purchase. “
In Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other countries in the region, people have little choice about which vaccine to receive.
Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton said that while his country’s low immunization rate could be explained by reluctance to vaccinate and an initial lack of supplies, Jamaicans now want Pfizer, including 208,260 doses shipped in August by the United States He said more than 10% of the population is fully vaccinated, while at least 20% have received at least one dose.
“The US measure would certainly have an impact given our close connection to this country for business and pleasure,” he said. “For some, this would be an externally imposed vaccine mandate, so it is likely that this will have an impact on vaccine acceptance.”
In countries like Argentina, there has been a patchwork of vaccine options, but not all were available simultaneously or in all regions. More than 10 million Argentines vaccinated with Russian Sputnik V will not be able to come to the United States if manufacturers do not resolve issues with production plants that have halted the WHO approval process.
Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said last week that manufacturers answered all questions needed to get clearance, but the WHO later said a decision on the Sputnik V vaccine was not was not imminent. Russian media Sputnik also indicated that the country’s authorities intended to discuss mutual recognition of vaccination certificates with their American counterparts at an upcoming meeting in Geneva.
“In principle, we have always said that those who have been vaccinated should not face any restrictions in terms of travel, including testing or even quarantine,” said Markus Ruediger, spokesperson for the Transport Association. international air transport.
“However, we believe that options for those who cannot be vaccinated – for medical reasons or due to a lack of vaccine – should not be ruled out and that alternatives, such as testing, should be made available. disposition.”