SA’s vaccinated seniors could be holidaying in Europe by August – or earlier, if they get J&J shot
- The European Union has revised its travel restrictions, allowing tourists from "white list" countries and fully vaccinated visitors in for the summer season.
- While South Africa is far from being added to the "white list", due to a slow vaccine rollout and variants of concern, citizens over 60 with the Pfizer jab could holiday in Europe in August.
- The wait is because of the 42-day interval between the first and second Pfizer doses, coupled with the 14-day waiting period required by the EU.
- But South Africans who receive the single-dose Johnson & Johnson jab could get to Europe a lot sooner.
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The European Union has agreed to ease some of its travel restrictions and welcome vaccinated tourists during the region's summer season. That means South African's over 60, who have received their Pfizer jabs during Phase 2 of the rollout, remain shut out for now – but some will be able to travel to Europe from August.
The EU's tentative reopening represents significant progress towards unrestricted international travel. For more than a year, most of Europe has been off-limits for non-essential travel, with only slight reprieves afforded to neighbouring EU-member states and "low-risk" countries without secondary waves of Covid-19.
This has had a devastating impact on Europe’s tourism industry, with arrivals dropping by more than 85% in 2020. Stringent quarantine measures, enforced on travellers entering Europe – including returning citizens and EU nationals – have further dissuaded international travel, triggering a knock-on effect which has been particularly hard felt by South Africa.
But as the global vaccine rollout gathers momentum, with almost 40% of all adults in the EU region having received at least one dose by 21 May, recommendations to restart travel and tourism have been prioritised.
On Thursday, the EU council, made up of representatives from the union's 27 member states, adopted a series of recommendations which were tabled earlier in the May. The decision to lift the ban on non-essential travel into the EU comes with revised requirements and criteria applicable to all outside countries.
The EU's "white list" determines which holidaymakers will be allowed to enter the region according to their country of origin's Covid-19 situation. Only Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand are currently defined as "white list" countries. The revised standards adopted by the EU allows "white list" eligibility to countries that:
- Record no more than 75 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period (changed from 25 cases per 100,000).
- Have made progress in the vaccination rollout (no finite target or population percentages are given by the EU in this regard).
- Aren't identifying new variants of interest or variants of concern.
Although South Africa has recorded less than 75 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days, the slow vaccination rate – with less than 1% of the population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – and prevalence of the 501Y.V2 variant exclude the country from the EU’s "white list".
But in addition to the amended criteria for "white list" countries, the EU also intends lifting restrictions for vaccinated travellers. Visitors will need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – requiring both shots for two-dose treatments – using jabs approved by the European Medicines Agency. The only authorised vaccines are currently those manufactured by:
- Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty)
- Johnson & Johnson (J&J Janssen)
Vaccines currently under review by the EMA – and thereby not accepted as a measure of full vaccination for travel purposes – include CureVac, Novavax, and Sputnik V.
Phase 2 of South Africa's vaccine rollout, which is currently limited to the use of Pfizer jabs while awaiting regulatory approval regarding the J&J shot, has reached more than 116,000 citizens over the age of 60.
To be regarded as fully vaccinated against Covid-19, South Africans who have had their first shot of Pfizer will need to wait 42 days to receive their second. This was the recommendation made by the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 vaccines (VMAC) that has been accepted by the department of health.
This 42-day interval has been adopted to lessen the strain on constrained vaccine supplies in the country.
"There is currently evidence to support a 42-day between the first and second doses," said the director general of the department of health, Sandile Buthelezi, with reference to VMAC-cited studies that show improved vaccine efficacy at longer intervals between doses.
"The VMAC has reviewed the available evidence in this regard and have advised that, in the event of limited vaccine supply, the dosing interval should be extended [from 21 days] to 42 days."
The EU also requires that a period of 14 days elapses, after the second and final dose has been administered, before considering a traveller to be fully vaccinated. In this way, South Africans vaccinated with the Pfizer jab could be eligible to travel to the EU 56 days after receiving their first dose.
This waiting period reduces drastically when using the single-dose J&J vaccine. This allows healthcare workers, vaccinated during Phase 1 of the rollout – under the Sisonke Project which used J&J doses while awaiting regulatory approval – to enter the EU earlier. The union has, however, warned that individual member states have the right to judge these vaccine allowances on a "case-by-case basis".
Proof of vaccination will be included in the EU's Digital Green Certificate which, like a vaccine passport, allows authorities to confirm the authenticity of a traveller's vaccination status.
The EU's cautious approach to reopening travel is coupled with the provision for an "emergency brake mechanism" which can enforce immediate restrictions based on a country's worsening Covid-19 situation.
"Where the epidemiological situation of a third country or region worsens quickly, in particular if a variant of concern or of interest has been detected, member states should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel into the EU," notes the EU.
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