COVID-19 Vaccine Tourism: More Questions Than Answers

The packages overlook several scientific details while medical tourism industry experts believe it is an unsustainable model

Travel companies are planning to launch innovative travel plans for their high net worth clients to the United States with an added incentive to get a vaccine shot. The tour package launched by Mumbai-based GEMS tours and travels claims to help their clients access the Pfizer vaccine by traveling to the United States for 3 nights and 4 days.

Kolkata-based Zenith Holidays is also planning to launch a tour to US and Russia after the countries issue vaccine distribution guidelines.

Also Read:COVID-19 Vaccines For India: All You Need To Know

BOOM spoke to a senior official on condition of anonymity at GEMS tours and travels who stated that vaccine tourism is a new venture that they are trying on the lines of medical tourism and is hopeful that many people will benefit from the scheme. "We are following all rules and regulations and are not procuring the vaccine. Through this we are also encouraging people to sponsor a trip if they would like to help someone," said the official.

The GEMS tour package to and fro New York costs around 1,74,999 per person which includes the airfare, stay with breakfast and one vaccine dose of the Pfizer vaccine which the company thinks will be likely approved and available by December 11, 2020. The Zenith Holidays four-day tour package costing at 1,49,999 excludes the visa and food costs but mentions one vaccine dose depending on FDA approval.

When asked whether this package will require a medical visa, the GEMS tour official stated that they would opt for the normal tourist visas as administering the vaccine is so far not under the ambit of medical tourism. The tourists will have to follow all the quarantining guidelines followed in the country at that specific time point.

This scheme was mocked on social media for promoting a tour package even before a vaccine was actually available in the market and are awaiting emergency use authorization. Due to this backlash, the company as an afterthought shared a disclaimer clarifying that the tour operator is not holding or procuring any vaccine and will only activate the tour once the US government allows for the vaccine to be distributed to non-residents.

Although the success of this vaccine tour depends on whether sales of vaccines will be permitted for non-residents, both GEMS and Zenith have decided to promote this package to maintain a database of interested participants and are not accepting any deposits.

Loopholes In The Vaccine Tourism Message

As a standalone package, the deal sounds like a lucrative proposition as India has so far not made any statements on purchasing this exorbitantly priced vaccine that has shown 95% effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2. This mRNA vaccine produced by BioNTech-Pfizer requires cold storages at temperatures that do not match with India's current cold storage capacity and infrastructure.

This marketing message, however, overlooks the prescribed dosage of the vaccine which is set at two shots for now. The second shot needs to be administered 21 days after the first shot. Addressing these questions, the senior official stated that the tour can be extended if the both the shots are required. "The logistics of a second shot if necessary, will be understood once the vaccine is available for use. We will incorporate that in the package accordingly"

BOOM also spoke to two medical tourism industry experts to understand the viability of such a tour package.

"This is an unsustainable project as countries will think of profiteering from the vaccines only after most of their demands are met," said Amit Sharma, Founder and CEO of eExpedise Health, a consultancy assisting with medical tourism planning along with health IT and health insurance. He also added that there is a lot of uncertainty around vaccines at this point in time to formulate tours promoting the same.

Concurring with him, Shashi Bhala Wankhade, director of Med Access India, another company focusing on medical tourism in India, raised questions about equitable access. "Only the super elite can access such a package but even they will question whether they should be spending money for one shot of a $20 vaccine whose alternatives the Indian government is also working on at a cheaper rate."

On the sustainability and viability, the tour operator said that this was only for the COVID-19 vaccine as demands for the vaccine will have to be met by countries. "Once the vaccine is available, such a tour can be managed for a year or two, not for longer. We will also come out with tours for other countries where vaccines are approved"

Finally, taking a note of the questions of how this scheme is biased towards the elite, the operator counters, "People who have worked for so long to earn their money. Several of them are not frontline workers. Do they not have a right to spend their hard-earned money on a vaccine to protect themselves and their loved ones?"

Updated On: 2020-11-27T08:00:35+05:30
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