Rich Americans might travel abroad for COVID shot

One of the biggest travel trends in recent years has been the rise of “medical tourism,” where travelers go abroad for health care procedures that they can’t get, or can’t afford, in the U.S. With COVID-19 raging around the world, and a vaccine with limits on distribution in the offing, will “vaccine tourism” be the next big thing?

There’s no guarantee that the U.S. will be the first nation to approve a COVID inoculation, which raises the question: Would you travel abroad to get one?

If the U.S. is slower than other countries to approve a COVID treatment, that could well stimulate a new wave of vaccine trips.

That’s the presumption of Tyler Cowen, an economist who writes an opinion column for Bloomberg News. In his latest column, he explores what the market for vaccine tourism could look like.

Cowen notes that China has already developed a vaccine that “seems to be safe and modestly effective,” and is testing it for distribution in the United Arab Emirates. “The timing is uncertain, but with delays on the U.S. side it is entirely possible that come January you will be able to get a ‘good enough’ vaccine in Dubai but not in Dallas,” he writes, adding that vaccines could become available before year’s end in the U.K. and Germany as well.

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Of course, getting a hold of a newly developed COVID vaccine of limited availability overseas could present quite a challenge, especially for a foreigner, since it will likely come with tight restrictions. This is a challenge that could be overcome, he suggests: “The regulations on these vaccines will be so new there are certain to be loopholes, so don’t think this is necessarily an illegal or black-market transaction. It is more akin to a grey market. There might be some legal risk, of course, and the higher it is, the higher the price will be to induce some sellers to divert supply.”

If the U.S. government faces further delays in approving and distributing a domestic vaccine, it might face “a revolt of sorts” from American elites who are desperate for a quick inoculation, Cowen said, and that pressure could erode any official opposition to vaccine tourism by U.S. citizens.
“Rather than fixing America’s cumbersome vaccine approval and distribution system, the federal government might find it easier to encourage an allied nation or two to offer their product to visiting Americans. It won’t be fair, but the U.S. might find that creating such a system for well-to-do squawkers will defuse their opposition to the status quo,” he writes.

Plenty of Americans already go abroad for medical treatments including cosmetic surgeery.

Plenty of Americans already go abroad for medical treatments including cosmetic surgeery.

Johnce/Getty Images

It is “hard to say” whether vaccine tourism could be considered ethical, Cowen notes, although he adds that rich foreigners “fly to the U.S. all the time for better medical treatment without provoking widespread outrage.”

“To put it bluntly, if you are a highly productive person who runs a business and creates a lot of jobs, it probably is best for society that you get a vaccine early,” Cowen says. “And it is not just to keep you healthy. It’s also to lower your perceived risk so you can travel, go to meetings and do your thing. Is it so wrong when selfishness and altruism coincide?”

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