COVID travel chaos: Israel delays entry for travelers inoculated with Sputnik

Russia's Sputnik vaccine has not been authorized by WHO. Israel was supposed to allow in visitors inoculated with it from November 15 but has now pushed that back to December 1.

Vials of the Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine are seen at the Del-Pest Central Hospital in Budapest, Hungary, February 12, 2021. (photo credit: ZOLTAN BALOGH/MTI/MTVA/POOL VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)
Vials of the Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine are seen at the Del-Pest Central Hospital in Budapest, Hungary, February 12, 2021.
(photo credit: ZOLTAN BALOGH/MTI/MTVA/POOL VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)

Israel won’t accept the Russian-made Sputnik V corona vaccine for foreign nationals entering the country until December 1, the Tourism Ministry announced on Monday, the day Israel was officially supposed to start recognizing the vaccine.

Lida (not her real name) was supposed to fly to Israel from Moscow at 2 a.m. on the night between Sunday and Monday. She filled out the entry statement that all passengers are required to present at check-in, including health documents proving vaccination or recovery status that are also submitted through this form.

However, the system kept denying her permission to board the flight.

Since November 1, non-citizens have been allowed to travel to Israel as long as they are considered fully protected against the virus – inoculated twice within the previous six months, vaccinated with a booster, recovered with one shot, or recovered within the past six months – provided they were jabbed with a vaccine recognized by the World Health Organization.

The Sputnik vaccine has not yet been green-lighted by the WHO, but Israeli authorities said last month that starting November 15, foreigners inoculated with the Russian vaccine would also be accepted as long as they underwent a serological test upon arrival, and quarantined until receiving results proving the presence of antibodies in their blood.

 View of coronavirus swab sampling booths at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on February 28, 2021.  (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90) View of coronavirus swab sampling booths at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on February 28, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Lida and many others made their travel plans based on this information, which also appeared in the official government website featuring all corona regulations as well as the entry statement form.

The website was updated after the announcement in the morning.

Her friend Artyom, an Israeli citizen living in the country, tried to help her.

“I called the Health Ministry several times and they told me that everything was fine and that the form worked,” he said. “At some point, they told me that Lida just needed to wait until midnight because that was the moment when the Sputnik was supposed to start being accepted.”

Health Ministry staff did not appear to be aware that Moscow is located in a different time zone than Israel, and midnight Israel time would already be 1 a.m. local time, making it practically impossible to fill out the form before check-in.

In the end, the form was not updated even after midnight, and Lida and another 20 or so travelers were not allowed to board the plane.

“It would have been her first time visiting Israel in 20 years, and now she does not want to ever come back,” Artyom said. “It has been a huge loss of money, too – even if she manages to get the flight refunded, there is health insurance, the accommodations, and so on.”

The Tourism Ministry said the decision to delay the entrance of tourists vaccinated with the Sputnik vaccine was made in light of “legal and technological difficulties that have been discovered in the existing tourism outline.”

The statement added that by December 1, “professionals will have completed all the requirements, legal formulations and system checks so that the entry of tourists vaccinated with Sputnik can start without problems.”

The WHO is also in the process of assessing the Russian vaccine. An official said on Friday that discussions were advancing on a potential emergency-use listing for Sputnik V.

“The process is moving again, which is very good news,” said WHO’s Mariangela Simao, as quoted by Reuters, but that further inspections were required.

In the meantime, Sputnik-vaccinated travelers who had made plans to visit Israel will have no choice but to postpone their trips.

“I cannot understand why the government continues to make grandiose announcements about opening for tourists, but then not having the infrastructure in place for them to come,” said former MK Dov Lipman, founder of the NGO Yad L’Olim. “This costs people money and terrible emotional pain, and also turns them off from our country.”

Yad L’Olim supports immigrants navigating their new life in Israel, including corona bureaucracy.

“Yad L’Olim has been flooded with pleas for help from people who were vaccinated with Sputnik who were so looking forward to coming to Israel,” Lipman said. “And all we can do is beg the Health Ministry to update the form since we cannot go in and change the form ourselves.”