Prickly Vaccine Issues Sting Indian Students Going to US Universities


Anxiety over the non-availability of World Health Organization (WHO)-approved Covid vaccines in India is surfacing frequently for students going from here to join universities in the United States (US). But experts point out that “it is not a major block”.

There are ways to take this forward with universities in the US coming up with compensation or arrangements for vaccination on site.

And, if students don’t have access to WHO-approved vaccines or are unable to get inoculated in time, they will still be able to join on-campus classes in the US, as per the experts. They will have to carry a valid F-1 visa and Covid negative RT-PCR report, taken within 72 hours of their flight’s departure.

In addition, there is assistance on campus and keeping in touch with counsellors and administration is helping students understand what lies ahead.

‘First dose done, what about the second?’

The WhatsApp groups formed among the students, who are expected to fly to the United States of America for higher education, are abuzz with concerns about vaccination and visas. Though the students are in touch with the respective universities they are going to join, there is still uncertainty about what will happen if they don’t get shots of vaccines approved by their host universities.

Komal Sachdeva, who will be joining Columbia University for a financial engineering course, received a notification from her university that only WHO vaccines will be allowed. “Unfortunately, I got my first dose of Covaxin. I was apprehensive about what would happen next, but we contacted the administration and were then told that there will be an arrangement or compensation to get vaccinated at the university itself,” she said.

This was a relief. “But will there be restrictions on travel without getting approved vaccines?” “What happens when we reach there?” These were some of the thoughts that were clouding the students’ minds along with worry over getting visa appointments.

The youngsters spoke to don’t want to take any risk on health and would like to get vaccinated, as they say being safe is more important than being anxious. Some of them said that their friends would take a vaccine in the university itself. “Whether or not Bharat Biotech-manufactured Covaxin is accepted at the university, I think we should all get vaccinated; it reduces the chances of catching the Covid infection. In any case, the university has told the students that there will be compensation or vaccination on site for those who could not get WHO-approved vaccines,” Sachdeva said.

There are students who have got the first dose of Covishield and are running to physicians to know if it is safe to get a different vaccine as the second dose because, by the time they get to the US in fall 2021, the time for a second jab would not have come.

In India, no trials have been held yet on combining Covishield and Covaxin that have so far been the two primary shots in the country’s vaccination drive. Experts have said trials are needed to suggest how effective and safe it would be to mix vaccines, and without this data and a green light from health authorities, two different vaccines should not be combined. Dr VK Paul, the Chair of NEGVAC (National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19), recently said, “It is plausible. But there need to be more studies… One shot of one type produces antibodies and the second shot from another will increase that. Scientifically, there is no problem.” According to a report in the Lancet, one such trial, ongoing in the UK, combined the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot with the one produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, and it was found that the pairing had seemingly upped the likelihood of mild to moderate side effects. No serious adverse outcomes were observed though.

Also, according to new rules, the gap between two doses has increased and many of the students won’t be in India for the second dose of Covishield. “So there is also discussion on what to get: Covishield or Covaxin? Or get vaccinated there? In any case, vaccination must happen. Having no vaccine is more dangerous than taking different vaccines,” Sachdeva said.

There are other pre-arrival formalities to be done on priority, and vaccination concerns will come after that.

Vinay Shah, ready to join Columbia University for a masters course in computer science, hopes Covaxin gets approval for emergency use. He said, “I hope for approval before we leave for studies. In fact, I am more confused about what will happen once we land there. Will we be isolated or quarantined since we don’t have WHO-approved vaccines here? The situation is so difficult that there is nothing right or wrong in these times. All that matters is are you vaccinated or not. So we are all focusing on getting vaccinated here and the US campus has its own protocols in special cases.”

The website of Columbia University states, “For international students and employees who have been unable to get vaccinated in their international location prior to their return to campus, they will be able to get vaccinated at one of the Columbia sites. They will be able to access Columbia facilities, residences, and classrooms immediately, but will be required to comply with additional precautions (such as masking and testing) until they are fully vaccinated. There are currently three vaccines that have received Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. These include the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, and the Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine.”

‘Things will sort out in time’ 

Adam Copeland, product director and associate vice president of operations at Study Group, University of Alabama, said, “US universities requiring vaccines for students recognise that many international students will not have had ready access to vaccines in their home countries. As such, they are working in concert with local and state health officials to ensure vaccines are available in a hassle-free manner.”

The logistics will vary from university to university, but he expects students to have confidence that they will receive detailed instructions about what to do from the point of arrival at the airport to commencing studies for fall 2021.

UC Berkeley has clarified in frequently asked questions that in case students are not able to access vaccines in their home countries, they will be allowed on campus, but “will be referred to a vaccine site to get vaccinated immediately, unless you qualify for a University-approved exemption or exception. Until you are fully vaccinated, you may be subject to special safety measures, like quarantine, frequent asymptomatic testing, and more extensive masking requirements. Vaccines that the World Health Organization (WHO) has approved will be accepted by UC under UC’s proposed policy on Covid-19 vaccinations. Given the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the University, under the proposed policy, will accept vaccines that have been authorized by WHO through its Emergency Use Listing (EUL) process.”

The university has specified, that as of now, “UC Student Health Services will assist students in identifying opportunities for vaccination if they are unable to have vaccination doses completed prior to their return to their campus community.”

Akshay Chaturvedi, the founder of student consultancy group Leverage Edu, is hopeful about approval for Covaxin. He said, “We don’t see non-availability of vaccine as an essential block. The government has come together with Bharat Biotech and is working together with WHO to accelerate its approval by the global organisation. Given the vaccine’s proven efficacy in clinical trials, we are expecting this to get the WHO’s nod soon.”

The campuses in the US are doing their best to ensure students get vaccinated. Giving an example of Rutgers University, he said, “We have seen some universities take the step forward and arrange vaccination camps on arrival for incoming international students. A good example is Rutgers university in the US that has taken approval from the state department to do so in three of their campus locations.”

Moreover, he said that with visa centres for US travel now opening up in major cities in India, it is expected that the issue will not pose a serious problem for most Indian applicants.

The important aspect is that major economies today understand the importance of international students coming into the country. “And they have already taken steps to welcome them back in this year through pro-student policy changes. All students currently on-campus in the US are getting vaccinated and universities are arranging vaccinations for non-vaccinated students as well,” he said.

Akshay is also pinning his hopes on foreign vaccines that are expected to arrive in July/early august. He said, “We expect this problem to be mostly curbed and hopefully all students travelling with at least their first jab. Introduction of single-jab vaccines like the Sputnik Light will also be revolutionary in huge economies like India and solve multiple supply-chain issues,” he said.

Piyush Kumar, regional director (South Asia), IDP Education, said, “Some Indian students are uncertain about their travel plans to the US because Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin is not yet on the list of WHO-approved anti-Covid drugs. On the bright side, US universities have released the earlier set travel norms for international students in which they are open to welcoming non-vaccinated students too. There are some universities organising vaccination drives on campus for their students. A few institutions are also asking students to quarantine for 14 days from the day of their arrival.”

In his opinion, students should try to get registered and inoculated only by WHO-approved vaccines. “Even if they choose a non-WHO-approved vaccine or don’t get vaccinated in time, they will still be able to join on-campus classes in the US. As in any case, they will have to carry a valid F-1 visa and Covid-19 negative RT-PCR report, taken within 72 hours of their flight’s departure,” he said.

Till then, the students should stay in touch with their counsellors and university representatives for any changes in the guidelines.

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