News analysis
(Photo by Misha Jordaan/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
  • It is now too late to get double vaccinated with Pfizer in order to travel overseas by 16 December, the traditional start of SA's peak season.
  • There is a chance you will miss out on some local holiday events too, without a vaccine passport.
  • If you travel far enough from a city, you can get a single-dose J&J shot until the start of December and still be considered fully vaccinated – for now.
  • Some countries may change their rules to treat J&J as a two-dose vaccine.
  • A single dose of Pfizer is not going to help your teenager in some countries either.
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If you want to travel overseas this Christmas and you haven't yet had your first dose of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine, you may have left it too late.

Thursday was the cutoff to have the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, wait the 42 days to get the second dose, and then wait 14 more days to be considered fully vaccinated by many countries in time for 16 December, which traditionally signals the start of SA's peak travel season.

That public-holiday, Day of Reconciliation, falls on a Thursday this year, making it all the more likely a date for much of the country to shut down until after New Year. 

Even if you don't plan to leave the country, you may still want to be fully vaccinated before the holidays, with the prospect of some entertainment events requiring vaccine passports at the door.

See also | No vaccine, no access rules could work from November, govt hears from science advisors

But travellers face an additional problem: the possibility that one-dose J&J vaccines may no longer be accepted in all countries by December.

About 70% of the vaccine doses currently being administered in South Africa are Pfizer, with the Janssen vaccine prioritised for use in rural areas, where distribution is trickier. Even so, with demand now generally low, getting a J&J vaccine is not particularly difficult: just pick a vaccination site you reckon is far enough away from a city to qualify as rural, then phone it to confirm it is using J&J. You can phone on the morning of 1 December, drive out for a shot that afternoon, and still be cleared for travel before the season peak.

However, there is growing pressure – including on the back of J&J's own data – to treat it as a two-dose vaccine, to bring its efficacy in line with the likes of Pfizer. Some countries seem likely to consider a person who has had one shot of J&J similar to someone who is more than six months past their second dose of Pfizer, as in need of a booster shot.

In Israel, domestic vaccine passports now expire six months after the last vaccine dose, though there is something of an emerging international consensus of a one-year validity period, after which vaccinations will not be accepted under coronavirus travel rules.

What happens if the countries with such vaccine expiration rules classify J&J as a two-dose vaccine internally? Will they treat South Africans with a single J&J dose as insufficiently vaccinated for travel purposes, even if South Africa and other countries stick to a one-dose regime? Nobody knows yet, but the two months to Christmas may tell.

South African travellers with kids face an additional potential vaccine problem. Other countries that vaccinate teenagers against Covid-19, such as Germany, require visiting children older than 12 to be likewise vaccinated. In Germany – and elsewhere – that means two doses of a vaccine such as Pfizer. In South Africa, teenagers may currently receive only a single dose of Pfizer, with the vague prospect of a possible second dose at some future time

Younger children are not required to be vaccinated in South Africa's most commonly travelled-to countries, but that too may change in coming months, as those countries roll out vaccinations for pre-teens and below, following China's example of vaccine authorisation for children as young as three.

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