Is It Ethical To Travel Internationally Before The World Is Vaccinated?

by Joseph K. Clark

Many Americans are longing for the days when they could take a dream vacation to Paris, Bali, or even just over the border to Toronto. As vaccine availability increases in the U.S., people feel a glimmer of hope that international travel will be back on the table soon.

But even as more people get vaccinated, and countries open up to American tourists, traveling abroad may remain inadvisable for a time, especially to places with less widespread vaccine access. As we move forward and start planning trips again, we must consider essential factors before grabbing our passports and jetting off.

HuffPost asked bioethicists and public health and travel experts to weigh in on the ethics of traveling abroad before vaccines have been widely administered worldwide. Read on for their thoughts.

We haven’t ruled out transmission risk.

“Individuals who are vaccinated have protection ― although not 100% protection ― against developing the severe disease if infected with SARS-CoV-2,” said Amy McGuire, professor of biomedical ethics and director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. “However, we are still generating evidence of how well different vaccines protect against transmission of the virus.”

It’s possible that vaccinated travelers could still transmit the virus to others. Hence, until we have more data on how much vaccines reduce transmission risk, we can’t draw significant conclusions about travel ethics in the coming weeks and months.

Travel Internationally

“If someone in the U.S. travels to another country, they may have an asymptomatic infection that they bring with them to the other country, putting people there at risk,” William Miller, senior associate dean for research at the Ohio State University’s College of Public Health, told HuffPost in an email. “Or they may acquire an infection there and bring it back with them to the people they are close to. The vaccinated traveler may not get sick, but they may cause others to become sick ― that’s why, in general, it still is not a good idea to travel yet.”

Virus variants can be a cause for concern.

“Other countries may have higher rates of virus variants that are more transmissible and, in some cases, may cause more severe disease,” Miller said. “The transmission of these variants to and from vaccinated people is a concerning possibility.”

As we still have much to learn about new variants (like whether the currently approved vaccines protect against them and reduce their transmission), it’s important to remain cautious and keep unnecessary travel to a minimum.

“Travelers may be infected with a novel variant and get sick, and potentially increase its spread in the U.S.,” said Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz, an assistant professor at Baylor’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

All health care infrastructure is not created equal.

“Please keep in mind that vaccine rollout in most countries is just getting started, and they may not have COVID under control,” Lázaro-Muñoz noted. “Travelers could add more pressure to strained health care systems in other countries.”

Countries with minimal outbreaks can also be vulnerable, especially if they don’t have the same health care and vaccination resources that wealthier nations do. A recent piece by James Hamblin in The Atlantic pointed to the disparities in vaccine access.

“Vietnam, for example, is a country of 97 million people that has had fewer than 1,600 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths,” Hamblin wrote. “They have done an exemplary job of controlling the virus and presumably have deficient levels of immunity.”

Nicole Hassoun, a visiting scholar at Cornell University and professor of philosophy at Binghamton University who studies public health ethics, made a similar point to HuffPost.

“While most people in rich countries will probably have access to a vaccine this year, those in poor countries will likely have to wait years to get vaccinated,” Hassoun said.

“However, poor countries might rely on the international tourism travel brings, and in some cases even do worse, all things considered, without it,” she added. “So if you decide not to travel, you might consider finding other ways to support businesses and people in poor places this year. If nothing else, you might consider donating the money you would have used traveling for fun.”

There’s reason to be cautiously optimistic for the future.

As the number of vaccinated people increases worldwide, prospects for international travel may improve as well. “As vaccine rollout advances, there will be much less community transmission, less likelihood of infection, and less likelihood of novel variants emerging,” Lázaro-Muñoz explained. “This will likely make tourism more manageable for host countries and greatly decrease the risk you may pose to others. At that point, you should feel more comfortable traveling to other countries.”

High vaccination rates and low COVID-19 rates, in both the traveler’s destination and country of origin, may make travel possible again, assuming we learn the current vaccines provide lasting immunity and considerably reduce transmission rates.

“One way to think about this is that you want to be in a fairly normal situation where your own local situation is open, with more or less normal activities albeit with masking and distancing,” Miller said. “And you want to be going to a place that is also fairly normal. And in both of those situations, you want rates low, despite the openness.”

In this scenario, travel demand is likely to reach new heights, said Konrad Waliszewski, co-founder and CEO of TripScout.

“Once a high percentage of the world is vaccinated, prepare to witness the biggest travel boom the world has ever seen,” he said. “Pent-up demand from a year of lockdown, combined with a significant increase in remote work flexibility, a decrease in required business travel, and respect for the fact you never know when the world will shut down again, will cause people to travel like never before.”

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