United Airlines Won’t Count AstraZeneca As A ‘Covid-19 Vaccine’

United Airlines is running a sweepstakes giving away free travel to people that have been vaccinated.

I got a question about United’s sweepstakes – why won’t United accept AstraZeneca shots?

[B]ecause I was in Europe and didn’t want to wait to get vaccinated in the US, I
received the AstraZeneca shot. United doesn’t have [AstraZeneca] on the sweepstakes list. They said my entry is invalid.

I say they are discriminating against travelers who got a worldwide approved vaccine. Who is United Airlines to decide what vaccine is okay? United Airlines doesn’t have ANY authority in suggesting what vaccine we should choose. Absurd and ridiculous. What’s your take on this?

I posed the question to United. They offered, “He is welcome to send in his entry via mail. It would need to be post marked by June 22 and arrive by June 29.”

Indeed there’s a mail-in option, as I pointed out when the contest launched. There’s no proof of vaccination required – it isn’t really a sweepstakes for getting a vaccine, anyone can enter, it’s just the only entry method that requires you to identify as vaccinated.

A United Airlines spokesperson acknowledged mail-in is how you enter if you haven’t been vaccinated “or if you aren’t able to meet the traditional entry requirements.”

To be sure anyone who wishes could print a vaccine card off the internet, handwrite it, and scan it for upload. But the question came from someone who feels their vaccine choice – the right one, to take the dose available to them and not wait – is somehow seen as less legitimate than people faking their vaccine cards for entry.

United Airlines is on safe ground here. They’re siding with the FDA, which still hasn’t granted an Emergency Use Authorization to AstraZeneca and probably never will. There’s ample vaccine supply currently in the United States, so it’s not needed anymore. But AstraZeneca is a key element of world vaccination campaigns, it’s approved in over 70 countries, and it would have saved lives here too early on.

The FDA punished AstraZeneca for messy trials, but there’s been little doubt that the shot works. It’s has rare side effects (along the lines of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with marginally higher prevalence). It appears not to be as effective against some of the variants as the mRNA vaccines, but no one ever expected anything close to Pfizer-BioNTech’s efficacy.

It’s easy to forget that just a few short months ago there was a hunger games for vaccine doses. Sure, there’s more vaccine than people looking for shots in the U.S. now and some doses could potentially sit unused past their current expiration dates. But from December through March people couldn’t get vaccines if they weren’t using bots or hitting refresh on web browsers all day.

By denying AstraZeneca to Americans in January, people got sick and died who wouldn’t have. They got sick and spread the virus to others who died. There was an opportunity to break transmission chains that we didn’t take. Yet until very recently we stockpiled millions of doses that could have saved lives in the rest of the world, too.

At a minimum the FDA should have had to explain why Americans are genetically different (warranting a different result than European regulators) or why their scientists are smarter than counterparts on the other side of the Pond. We should have focused on getting first doses to as many people as possible (including AstraZeneca) and stretched supply with half doses of Moderna (indeed a half dose of Moderna is even better than a full dose of AstraZeneca). We know by the way that delaying second doses improves immune response (as would have been expected).

United though, a global airline, is siding with the FDA: AstraZeneca doesn’t count. And so United – just like the FDA – owes customers an explanation for why a vaccine approved by the U.K. and the E.U. and so many other countries shouldn’t have been available to Americans when the country was still recording a quarter million cases and over three million deaths from Covid-19 each day.

This is also by the way the problem with vaccine passports – aside from verifying they are real – which vaccines count? How many doses? How long are they valid for? If much of the world is using AstraZeneca and even United Airlines can’t agree to honor it, how likely are governments going to be to come to consensus?

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. Good points but I imagine United is just following advice from its legal department. Better to stick with the FDA-approved vaccines rather than jump into the morass of which vaccines are valid or better.

  2. It’s a lottery and they can make whatever rules they want. This is like arguing that I want to play the number 81 in Keno so you sue the casino. They don’t recognize AZ as a vaccination, you don’t get to play. Yeah I get you, you got a trophy because you were on the team so you still live by those rules.

  3. What does the person mean by worldwide approved? Isn’t it specifically not approved in the US, so not worldwide?

  4. They pushed out a flawed UI. Not really a surprise for United. I messed up and uploaded the wrong vaccine card and contacted them and they said there is no way to fix it.

  5. @Jim
    AZ is one of the few vaccines recommended by the WHO, which is what is meant by worldwide approved. It’s simply not approved in the US because the US doesn’t need to use it.

  6. I think its the wrong call.

    Technically the FDA didn’t approve any COVID-19 vaccines. They approved Emergency Use.

    I’m surprised and expect they will reverse course. What about all their employees in foreign countries? Do they get a free ticket to America to get a “proper” vaccine.

    With Biden over in England pulling out the buddy card I doubt this news would be favorable for the leaders.

  7. I guess United doesn’t want any passengers from Canada since Astra Zenaca is the main vaccine here.

  8. UA’s US customers clearly cannot get the AZ vaccine in the US but they can in many other countries, as can the citizens of many other countries. The US even has bothered to hold onto millions of doses of AZ vaccines – presumably for when they MIGHT approve them.

    And yet UAL fancies itself as the largest US airline. Why would they even entertain the thought of deciding which vaccines are appropriate for their GLOBAL population and picking only those that are valid in the US?

    And WHO, pray tell, would upload an image of their vaccine card in order to have the CHANCE of winning something? Would the CHANCE of free travel for life be enough to provide all of your health information to a non-insurance/medical provider?

  9. It is a contest, firstly, so they can make up any rules they want. Secondly, it’s for US residents only, so they focused on vaccines available and approved in the US. Finally, they HAVE a workaround for those rare unicorns who are US residents, UA Mileage Plus members, got AZ vaccine somewhere else, and want to enter. I’d imagine that’s this one person and maybe a handful of others. Let’s not get on a soap box about this when there are a zillion legit things to get mad at United about 🙂

  10. United is a US (based) airline adhering to US standards.

    They are also not accepting the Sputnik vaccine.

    Moving on …

  11. @Steve – the FDA made clear that AstraZeneca’s EUA wasn’t welcome early on. Putting this on ‘but AstraZeneca didn’t apply’ is disingenuous.

  12. It could be as simple as, their contest, they make the rules.

    It’s also worth nothing that Kirby basically acknowledged the sweepstakes was at the behest of the Biden admin, as a way to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. UA is a worldwide carrier, but the purpose here is to move the needle on slowing vaccination rate in the USA, not elsewhere in the world, and encouraging a non-EUA (I remember when that was most well-known as a Continental upgrade term) vaccine wouldn’t serve the administration’s goals. At least it’s open worldwide in the first place, as I’m sure that would be a point of contention were the opposite true.

  13. Can only imagine this blogger’s post if instead of the WHO-approved AstraZeneca being in question it was the WHO-approved Sinopharm one.

  14. Again, some people don’t get that if this is a contest for US based customers, they could ONLY get one of the 3 US approved vaccines approved for use in the US if they got the vaccine in the US.

    But the point is why does UAL need to be enforcing what type of vaccine anyone got? If they were saying, you can’t get on our planes if you don’t have a vaccine approved for the US, then that might make some sense, even if they cut off alot of international passengers.

    But why does a contest need to determine who got what vaccine – and why would ANYONE send their vaccine data to a private company just for a CHANCE to win some money?

  15. Hello from Canada! Astra Zeneca was originally approved in Canada. Many Canadians took their first injection of it, the safety data in the end showed blood clot incidents at a rate of about 1 in 25,000, so the vaccine was halted in several provinces and then pulled after a few more weeks earlier this year. It is not being delivered as a second dose at all in Canada.

  16. That is totally untrue and is another example of vaccination disinformation. Astra Zenaca is still heavily used in Canada as it is in the UK and EU.

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