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Many Latin American travelers shut out from visiting U.S. by new vaccine policy

From Guatemala to Mexico to Cuba, millions of people have been vaccinated with shots not approved by the WHO, making them ineligible to enter the U.S.
Image: A man gets a shot of Sputnik v vaccine Inside a makeshift
A man gets a shot of the Sputnik V vaccine at a makeshift vaccination center in Santa Fe, Argentina, on June 5.Patricio Murphy / LightRocket via Getty Images file

As soon as Covid-19 vaccines became available for her age group in Guatemala, Ilse Samoyoa lined up with hundreds of other people for nine hours to get her shot.

Samoyoa, 56, never imagined that the Sputnik vaccine she got in June would eventually bar her from traveling to the U.S.

For three decades, Samoyoa, an administrator for a transportation company, has traveled back and forth between Guatemala and the U.S. for vacation and to visit family in Miami and Los Angeles. She was last here in November 2020.

“I am sad and bothered by this decision,” said Samoyoa, who had to cancel a trip she had booked for next Monday. “It was the first vaccine to arrive in Guatemala, and the government encouraged us to take it.”

For many in Europe, where there had been a travel ban since early in the pandemic, the loosening of U.S. travel restrictions for those who have been vaccinated with shots approved by the World Health Organization has come with elation — as seen in recent stories and images of joyful reunions. The ban on travel from 33 countries covered European Union members, China, Iran and India.

But for Samoyoa and others who had been traveling back and forth throughout the pandemic from Latin America, where there was no travel ban, the shift in policy the U.S. announced this week left them out. Many countries in the region have bought millions of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and others that still haven’t been approved by the WHO.

Only six vaccines have been approved by the WHO, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: those from Pfizer, Moderna, Jansen, AstraZeneca, Sinovac and Sinopharm. The unapproved ones are Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSico and Cuba’s Abdala, Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus. In many countries, people can’t choose the vaccine they get and depend on what the government distributes.

The shift in travel requirements comes right before the holiday season, when many people travel to be with their loved ones.

Cuba, which has vaccinated most of its population with home-grown vaccines, will be hit hard. It is set to ease some of its tough Covid restrictions Monday, and as U.S. airlines prepare by adding daily flights to and from Havana, Cubans won’t be able to board flights to the U.S.

Countries like Venezuela have used the Sputnik as well as the Cuban vaccines. Venezuela recently began vaccinating children ages 2 to 11 with the Cuban Soberana 2 vaccine.

The shift in policy means the U.S. has reopened land borders with Mexico and Canada, where many trips are made by land. Land crossings had been shut down to “nonessential” traffic throughout the pandemic.

But Mexico has inoculated millions of people with the Russian and Chinese vaccines. Mexico has received 19.1 million doses of the Russian vaccine, according to the Russian state news service Tass. Fearing that millions of Mexicans would be barred from traveling to the U.S., President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said last month at a news conference, “The WHO must act correctly, without political or ideological tendencies, sticking to the science.” 

Under the new rules, fully vaccinated travelers are allowed to enter the U.S. if they show proof of having been vaccinated with one of the vaccines approved by the WHO. They also have to show negative coronavirus tests taken within three days of their flights. Children under 18 are exempt from the vaccination requirement, although they must take Covid tests within 24 hours of their departures.

The WHO’s approval of Sputnik, CanSico and the Cuban vaccines is pending.

Samoyoa, in Guatemala, said she laments the U.S. decision and doesn’t know when she will be able to come again. “I renewed my 10-year visa and wonder when will I be able to use it,” she said.

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