Ever since United Kingdom became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for rollout from late December, social media has been rife with messages from travel agencies with 'vaccine tourism' packages.
What exactly are these packages? Is it even legal? What is the Travel Agencies' Association saying about this? Here's a breakdown of what we know.
What is vaccine tourism?
'Vaccine tourism', made popular recently by travel companies, is essentially flying to another country for a shot of COVID-19 vaccine, when the treatment is not yet available in your home country.
Through WhatsApp messages and Twitter posts, some travel agencies are claiming that they can help customers 'skip' the wait for COVID-19 vaccine through these 'vaccine tourism' packages.
What are the packages being offered by different tour agencies?
Mumbai-based Gem Tours and Travels Pvt Ltd, whose messages had gone viral, advertised a package of Rs 1,74,999 for a 'vaccine tour.'
The package includes Mumbai-New York-Mumbai flight, stay for three nights and four days and free breakfast. Speaking to The Quint, an employee of Gem Tours said:
"“We have not opened any bookings but we have received over 2,000 calls enquiring about our scheme. Many have shared their basic details, so that we can give them priority when the necessary approvals are in place.”" - Employee, Gem Tours
When asked when the approvals are expected, the employee did not have an answer.
Kolkata-based Zenith Holidays, on the other hand, has opened bookings for '100 select guests.' The package of Rs 1,49,000 includes India-USA-India return airfare, four days stay in a 4-star deluxe hotel and one dose of vaccine.
All COVID-19 vaccines including Pfizer and BionTech are two-dose vaccines 3-4 weeks apart. There is no clarity on how these 3-4 day tour takes care of the second dose.
Is it safe for me to put money in such schemes? Is this even legal?
Don't fall prey, warns Pronob Sarkar, President of Indian Association of Tour Operators, a body comprising 1,600 registered organisations in India.
"“No recognised tour operator will come up with packages when there are no proper permissions in place,” Sarkar told BloombergQuint, adding that he “requested people to not fall prey to such schemes as it is not foolproof.”" - Pronob Sarkar
Gem Tours and Travels is not a part of this association.
But why are they organising ‘vaccine trips’ to US when UK has approved the use of Pzifer vaccine?
The UK has announced that priority groups will get vaccinated first. However, it still has to decide who will get the vaccine in their priority groups first. Top of the list are care home residents and staff, followed by people over 80 and other health and social care workers.
Mass immunisation of everyone over 50, as well as younger people with pre-existing health conditions, will happen next as more doses become available.
"In the US, we are expecting that the vaccine will be available for sale and can be facilitated for everyone who needs," says a tour operator associated with a group that is offering vaccine tour packages.
There is no official confirmation of this from the US regulatory authorities.
How many doses of vaccine have UK ordered for now?
The UK has ordered 40 million doses, enough to vaccinate 20 million people.
According to the BBC, around 10m doses should be available soon, with the first 800,000 arriving in the UK in the coming days.
Okay, but what is the guarantee that I will be vaccinated if I take these trips?
None. There is no guarantee for this as most countries are yet to come up with a blueprint to vaccinate their frontline workers and most-vulnerable. Permission for foreigners is likely to be given only after the country's citizens are vaccinated.
What has the Indian government said about such trips? Do I need a medical visa?
The Indian government has not recognised 'vaccine tours' yet and has not released a statement regarding the same. Since the authenticity of these tours are under question, it is also not clear whether a medical visa is required for this.
Shouldn’t developed countries share vaccine with others? What is the WHO stand on this?
When developed countries or nations with more money strike pre-purchase deals with pharma companies to buy vaccines as and when the trials prove successful, it is called 'vaccine nationalism.' In most cases, the deals are struck between them to ensure that the vaccine is available to their country before the rest of the world.
The alternative against vaccine nationalism is global collaboration – which the WHO says can be achieved by the organisation-backed COVAX Facility mechanism.
The countries who join the initiative are assured supply of vaccines by the WHO, whenever they are approved. These countries will also have supplies to protect at least 20 percent of their population, the WHO has said.
Which vaccines are the frontrunners in India?
According to a Credit Suisse research, India's go-to vaccines will be Oxford AstraZeneca, Novovax, Johnson & Johnson and if it clears trials, India's indigenous COVAXIN. Serum Institute of India, the Indian manufacturer of Oxford AstraZenaca vaccine, has a capacity to make nearly 800 million doses of the vaccine in a year. 400 million of those are reserved for India, reported FIT.
. Read more on FAQ by The Quint.FAQ: What’s Vaccine Tourism? Is It Legal to Take A ‘Shot’ Trip?Plea in SC For Farmers’ Removal from Delhi-NCR Border, Cites COVID . Read more on FAQ by The Quint.