By Nora Gámez Torres and Jacqueline Charles
New Biden administration travel restrictions aimed at preventing the unvaccinated from coming to the United States will be felt particularly hard in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where wide disparities and lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines have left most of the population without protection against the deadly virus.
The new rules, which White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said will begin in early November, could also prohibit some vaccinated travelers from entering the country if they have received shots from vaccine makers that are not recognized by the World Health Organization.
The White House said last month that it was considering banning travelers who received COVID-19 vaccines that have not received emergency authorization from the WHO. The U.S. has only authorized three vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — but the WHO’s emergency use list is much wider and includes vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm. But it currently does not include Russia’s Sputnik V nor Cuba’s Soberana, which some countries in the region have used to augment their vaccine supplies.
A spokesperson with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency “is actively working with vaccine experts regarding which vaccinations will be accepted [and] age that the requirements will start to apply.”
The CDC will provide more information about the requirements in the coming weeks, she said.
European and Brazilian travelers, who have been shut out of the U.S. for more than a year, will likely welcome the measure, but others are dreading it due to its potential effect on regional travel in the Americas.
Whatever decision U.S. authorities make would leave many Latin Americans and Caribbean nationals shut out of the United States at a time when visa approvals have already been backlogged over COVID-19 and restrictive embassy staffing, and could likely create more diplomatic friction in a region already feeling ignored by its closest, most powerful neighbor.
“It disproportionately affects the developing countries like Guyana,” said Oneidge Walrond, the South American nation’s minister of Tourism and Commerce, who fears that Sputnik will not make the U.S. approved list.
Believing vaccination was the only way out of the pandemic, Guyana earlier this year turned to the Russian-made vaccine, purchasing 200,000 doses at $20 each, after being unable to secure any of the U.S.-made vaccines. Even though it has joined a number of Caribbean countries in passing similar COVID entry requirements for international visitors — one must show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 7 days of travel — the country believes they will now be punished by the U.S.’s new requirement after being unable to get other vaccines.
“We think it’s unfair and highlights and deepens the divide between the haves and have-nots,” Walrond said.
On Wednesday, the Pan American Health Organization’s director, Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, said only 37 percent of the 653 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been vaccinated, while countries like Nicaragua have yet to reach 10 percent. Haiti, which has only administered about 75,220 doses of U.S-donated Moderna vaccines, has less than 1 percent of its population vaccinated.
With many people lacking access to vaccines, the U.S. this summer began shipping 40 million doses to the region, mostly through the WHO vaccine global access platform known as COVAX. But tensions over the availability of shots in one of the world’s hardest-hit regions have already flared even among partners like Colombia, which has already received six million doses donated by the U.S.
In his speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly, Colombian President Iván Duque spoke of the “unprecedented” gaps in vaccination coverage, adding a veiled criticism of the U.S. boosters plan. “While some nations acquire additional doses for six or seven times [the size of their] population and announce third booster doses, others have not applied a single dose that gives them hope,” he said.
Millions of people in the region have gotten vaccines produced by Russia, China, India and Cuba that have not received WHO emergency authorization. The rules will also spotlight regional inequities, as the poorest countries struggle to vaccinate their citizens amid low supply and vaccine hesitancy, and international efforts like COVAX remain slow in delivering promised doses.
“We continue to urge countries with surplus doses to share these with countries in our region, where they can have a life-saving impact,” Etienne said. She said PAHO, which is the World Health Organization’s Americas regional office, was trying to accelerate vaccinations in the Americas, including purchasing vaccines and ramping up vaccine manufacturing in the region.
Though COVAX was set up to help poor and middle-income countries secure vaccine doses at lower prices, PAHO’s assistant director, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, said it will not meet the goal to provide enough vaccines to immunize 20 percent of the population of participating nations.
Cubans are in a particularly tough spot because the government declined to participate in COVAX and developed its own vaccines instead. The government also has not taken the U.S. up on an offer to accept vaccine donations, two senior Biden administration officials said last week.
After a year and a half of government-imposed restrictions on foreign travel, many Cubans are looking forward to visiting family and friends abroad when airports open up mid-November. Still, they will likely face a new hurdle to come to the U.S., as the vast majority of Cubans are receiving locally produced shots of Soberana and Abdala.
A minority of the population is getting the Chinese-manufactured Sinopharm vaccine that has WHO emergency approval. Cuban authorities said the island was leading the vaccination efforts in the region, with 80 percent of its 11.3 million population having received at least one dose. However, only 56 percent is fully immunized because Cuba’s vaccination program requires three doses with a space of several weeks among shots.
Credit: Miami Herald