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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I received both my shots in march so I hope they will still work by the end of the year. I will definitely try to get a booster shot before my oct travel to europe for my three upcoming trips.

  2. Very good discussion. I am in the Moderna Phase 3 vaccine trial and we have weekly follow up surveys, monthly phone conferences and more spaced out in person blood draw visits. So they are looking at what’s in the blood, but also closely monitoring whether trial participants actually get sick. It seems to me that as long as the vaccine is continuing to provide protection in real life outcomes a vaccine passport should be valid. They don’t know for sure how long the vaccine is effective, but it is effective until it starts showing itself not to be, in terms of people getting sick. Vaccine passports should be declared to be good indefinitely, but with the proviso that a booster will be required to keep it in force when data show it is necessary. I got my second dose on Labor Day and was unblinded in January.

  3. As your boss said, there’s no way these companies are going to leave the US behind. The government can mandate these companies manufacture vaccines in their US facilities and can also forbid their export. Nothing to see here.

  4. Doing full on international travel right now.

    Not vaccinated.
    Not interested in getting vaccinated.
    Not going to have anything to do with any ‘vaccine passport BS.’
    Sorry, just not going to do it.

    I pay for biz and first, if companies or countries want my money, they’ll find a less authoritarian way to do things.

    I’m not playing ball, neither is my company.

  5. @George

    I believe everyone has the right to choose or refuse the vaccine. I don’t push anyone either way.

    But I’m very curious – you seem so against it. If you got sick and required hospitalization – would you decline the treatment also?

    Or if you were required to sign a waiver when you decline the vaccine that you also decline later treatment if you get sick ( kind of like declining an insurance policy) would that influence you to take the vaccine?

  6. My wife lost two siblings to Covid in April. Bothe died within 10 days of each other.
    So unless your young or have no comorbidities at an advanced age you can go ahead and choose not to vaccinate.
    My wife’s other sister is of an advanced age and has comorbidities but believes that it is more risky to take the vaccine than to catch Covid. This is after what has happened to her two siblings already. She takes ivermectin which she thinks protects her from Covid.
    We all live in the Philippines where there is a high risk of contagion from Covid.
    Let’s see where her belief takes her.

  7. @Tim: Just ask some of the health workers the same question. Currently, there is some measurable portion of the medical front line workers who are not vaccinated despite an enormous pressure. Try to find any recent data on how many of them are vaccinated – I did not succeed in this and only found earlier reports showing some rather large %. My personal physician told me that she would not get vaccinated if that would be her personal decision (her boss “strongly suggested” her to do so and she did). One of my friends – a PhD and full Professor who does research on mRNA and was a postdoc at NIH for 5 years – told me that “no way” she is going to get it (and she a cancer survivor).
    The point of my physician is that if you are healthy with a normal immune system you will be just fine when exposed to the Sars-Cov2 and many other viruses. Yes, bad things could happen and each of us would die one day regardless of the vaccination status. But if you ask a non-vaccinated person to sign a treatment waiver, then ask an obese diabetic person who refuses to follow a healthy lifestyle recommendations to do the same..
    Regarding vaccine passports and the needs for the booster shots we shall wait and see. In UK Spanish flu had 3 waves and lasted just under 2 years (without any vaccines available). If this pandemic would follow the same trend, the whole thing will over by this Christmas and who will be taking the booster shots then? However, I sure that some places (Australia?) will be still follow some protocols, e.g., by asking for the tests, vaccines, or may be spraying you from a can…
    Meanwhile I am heading to Costco to pick up some liquid soap sold at ridiculously low prices – did everyone suddenly stop washing hands already?

  8. I doubt very much that there will be a mad rush for booster shots given how difficult it has been to get many people to even take the initial vaccinations.

  9. @Gary – We actually are getting an idea of how long they’ll last. Somebody performed a meta-analysis of existing COVID protection studies (on imperfect, in vitro models, mind) and based on the trendline, those with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are likely protected at a solid rate for >1 year but <2. So something like 15-21 months.

    Read for yourself and draw your own conclusions: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-021-01377-8

  10. Our body’s systemic immunity revolves around memory-based B-cells and T-cells, as well as antibodies, yet the focus has been on the presence of antibodies as “the” reference indicator for “vaccine” efficacy (perhaps it’s just easier to measure their presence?). Let’s suppose that antibodies decline over time if the threat conditions also decline over time, but can be reinstated through B-cell and T-cell memory functions, should those threat conditions arise again in the future. We also know that naturally acquired immunity (from exposure and recovery) do get “recorded” by B-cells and T-cells, but the question is whether “vaccines” also induce such “recording” for future recalls — if *not* then Big Pharma has an assured recurring revenue stream with their “vaccines”. However, if “vaccines” *do* induce, and memory functions of B-cells and T-cells are able to “pierce” the variants and still be sufficiently protective against such, then subsequent booster jabs may *not* be necessary, at all.

    Furthermore, a recent study out of UK suggests that those who *already* have natural immunity should *not* get any jabs, since they will be more prone to adverse events from jabs than those who have *never* gotten exposed to SARS-CoV-2 before. Ever wonder *why* so many have died after getting their jabs? Perhaps those people had unwittingly already attained natural immunity? Much more research needs to be done about such occurrences!

    Therefore, this whole issue of “Vaccine Passports” is quite misleading — they should really be *rebranded* as “Immunity Certificates,” instead, to also be inclusive of those who have already acquired natural immunity! But Big Pharma will probably protest such a change, as it dilutes their future recurring revenue potentials.

    Ivermectin has been *proven* to be *safe* and *effective* in at least 28 randomized clinical trials worldwide to *treat* those who got infected (up to 74% improvement against mortalities), as well as a prophylaxis (up to 85% improvement against getting infected). So, should situations from infection exposure become serious enough for some people (perhaps due to co-morbidities), they can get treated with Ivermectin to recover *first,* and then consider whether they would like to get “vaccinated” afterwards, since it’s not clear whether an abridged exposure experience is sufficient to induce long-term B-cell and T-cell memory benefits.

  11. Am I missing something? The US has “Vaccine Passports”? How do we “renew” something that doesn’t even exist?

    Personally, I’m concerned that the US doesn’t have a documented, verifiable way (passport?) for vaccinated US travelers who want to travel abroad. In the EU, travelers will be able to present a QR code on their smartphones in places where documented vaccination is required for entry. We have 4″ pieces of cardboard that are way too easy to forge.

    What is this “Vaccine Passport” you’re referring to? From what I can tell, the US is just hoping the whole world will trust US travelers to operate on the honor system with their maybe legit/maybe not legit pieces of cardboard.

    I’m anticipating a major cluster*** when most of Europe opens its borders to American travelers.

  12. While some folks object to getting vaccinated and still insist on traveling internationally, they do have to have a passport to reenter the U.S. and probably expect that reentry process to be fast and efficient. Policy wise I’d like to see all expedited entry processes, e.g. Global Entry, require either proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test within 72 hrs of boarding an inbound flight or dual Covid tests — one within 72 hrs of boarding an inbound flight and a second within one week of arrival (subject to significant five if not completed).

  13. As it stands half the US will be permanently staying home (or only going to Mexico)
    The rest of the world thanks you in advance.

  14. Your worry is rather misleading based on the unproven (though possible supposition) need, though as with the flu mutations quite likely could call for annual or other periods of booster shots. Saying the US is in jeopardy because it hasn’t ordered boosters yet is like saying I’m going to starve because I have made dinner though my fridge is overstocked with food.

    First off, most of the EU is still yet to receive their 1st shots and their orders cover 1st and 2nd shots. The notion of boosters has only emerged this week. Australia has barely started 1st shots so its orders also are based on 1st and 2nd shots.

    Secondly, Pfizer and Moderna are patented and only made in two plants each which are in the US and EU. The US has refused to permit orders from other countries to be filled from its two plants making those primary RNA vaccines until a target of vaccinations of Americans has been reached. Supplies of those two vaccines for the rest of the world all comes from the other two plants in the EU. (The absurdity of this policy is that while Pfizer vaccine is made in Michigan, Canada can only get its supply from the EU plant, so rather than crossing a border 100 miles from the factory, it must be flown across the Atlantic!)

    If boosters are required in the US, your two factories will supply them ahead of any exports (after such exports are approved). So please don’t take the typical narrow view Americans have. The primary reason the rest of the world is going unvaccinated is not from the same absurdity among most Republicans (yes we’ve seen the surveys and the pathetic numbers from Red states compared to Democrats/Independents and Blue states) but because your country has only just started to permit very limited export of vaccines, and primarily just the Oxford/AstraZenica that has not been approved for Americans

    So fret not, you’ll get your booster if they ever become required. It’s the rest of us who must be concerned until Pfizer and Moderna agree to license their respective technologies (which is very different from the other non-RNA vaccines) to manufacturers in other countries as has been the case with both J&J/Jansen and Oxford/AstraZenica/CoviShield.

  15. Being in my 70’s and not wanting to be a guinea pig I refused the Vaccine. I caught Covid. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was far less of a disaster than the vaccine may have been for a person with a preexisting auto immune condition. Wait and watch for the next year or so to see the longer term results among those who have received this experimental solution to Covid. Natural immunity is something to be cherished by those who have it. Too bad that the “vaccine passport ” will not take that into account for those who want to travel.

  16. I agree that we don’t have our act together on the COVID front as far as – vaccinated people should not be required to get a negative test for re-entry. They are afraid of making the anti-vaxxers mad, so we get treated like we are not vaccinated. Almost the whole world is acting this way, as in treating the vaccinated as if we are unvaccinated. It flies in the face of logic and it gives the unvaccinated no further incentive to get themselves vaccinated. I also agree we need to order the boosters, better safe than sorry.

  17. And Florida Governor DeSantis is prohibiting vaccine passports in Florida.

  18. @George doesn’t think he needs vaccinations, until he does! If he is travelling around as much as he claims, he will come across some countries which will 100% require proof of vaccination. So he skips them; they are losing nothing despite what he thinks!

  19. Not sure the point of this article. I have a vaccine passport. It is good for 365 days from when I became fully vaccinated. Obviously if the initial vaccine lasts longer than that they will expand the duration. Also, it has already been announced that if booster shots are required then the app will be able to show who has had the booster shot as well. I am not even sure what you mean by the US falling behind on ordering a booster shot. The booster shots aren’t even being made yet. The booster shots are to reinforce our protection from the original strain but they are also going to be designed to deal with the new variants that are still being studied. Doesn’t seem really likely that US drug companies are going to make booster shots and then ship them overseas if there is a shortage in the US. I don’t even understand what you are suggesting in your article about people who didn’t get the initial shots going in just for the booster? Does that really sound like something that is going to be a major issue? Chances are in a year if they have boosters they will probably modify the original vaccines as well to handle the variants. This whole article feels like you are desperate to raise issues where there appear to be very few.

  20. This vaccine passport discussion will hopefully only be a thing for a year or so. Until everyone forgets about Covid. This idea that if everyone doesn’t get vaccinated we will be in an endless pandemic is hogwash. Every prior
    global pandemic in history has ended without vaccines. This one will too, with or without vaccines. Hopefully vaccines will end it more quickly than it otherwise would. But make no mistake, with the level of natural immunity the US already has (probably between 35-60%) Covid would be waning significantly over the next year.
    Once it is abundantly clear that the pandemic is over (that does NOT mean 0 cases), travel should return to normal. It will be unteneble for businesses matter to deny service to half the population. Yes, you heard that right – half the adult population is still not vaccinated at all. This is not due to low supply, it is because of low demand. Many people just don’t want it. So for all of you who mock those who are refusing this vaccine, realize that you are actually in the minority. Half the country is not anti-vax, rather they are hesitant about this particular vaccine. With good reason. Given the fact that so many are already hesitant to take what is still an experimental product (Covid vaccine), vaccine passport requirements for any activity is a terrible idea.
    Additionally, I believe the dominos will fall quickly when it comes to reopening. Imagine one chain store pulls their mask mandate while the other retains theirs. They will eat their competition’s lunch. Obviously it will be matched. Same with airlines, once one airline drops it they will all follow rather quickly.

  21. @ kristina bellowitz. I’m pretty much in your camp on this. I do question why anyone that is “fully vaccinated”, especially Fauci and Biden, would wear TWO masks. If the vaccine is as effective as the companies and CDC claims . . . why? I’ve also read many articles that state that there is no such thing as “asymptomatic” transmission. I’ll put that statement in the same file as airlines saying the air is inside the airplane is not an issue. The past few generations of airliners have actually recycled more cabin air than previous models due to the fuel savings of using less bleed air for cabin pressurization.

  22. @George A question:

    Do you manage international travel with testing at each departure and arrival?

    We read another blogger going from Mexico to Germany thru Amsterdam and was testing each place.


  23. @Retired Lawyer: “And Florida Governor DeSantis is prohibiting vaccine passports in Florida.”

    Which is completely meaningless political posturing.

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