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Some international students have been forced to travel long distances to receive an approved vaccine.

July 30, 2021

Following Cornell’s Vaccine Mandate, International Students Struggle to Obtain Approved Vaccines

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As Cornellians prepare for a fully in-person semester, some international students say they are struggling to meet the University’s requirement for students to receive an FDA-approved vaccine before arriving on campus this August. 

The University is only considering students fully vaccinated if the vaccine they received has been approved by the FDA, European Medical Association and the World Health Organization. This list currently includes Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca Sinopharm and Sinovac. 

Students need to be fully vaccinated to be allowed on the Ithaca, Geneva and Cornell Tech campuses this fall, unless they have a religious or medical exemption. 

But for the fall term, students will be allowed to attend classes even if they received a vaccine that New York State doesn’t approve — provided that they are vaccinated with a state-approved vaccine shortly after their arrival. 

This also means that some students who have already been vaccinated will get vaccinated again with an approved vaccine. New York State and the FDA have not yet approved some international vaccines, and will treat people with the AstraZeneca, Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines as not fully vaccinated in instances of contact tracing. Therefore, individuals with these vaccines must quarantine if they have been exposed to COVID-19. 

Santiago Valenzuela ’23, a student from Colombia, received both doses of the Moderna vaccine at Cornell last spring at a vaccine clinic held on campus. The clinic allowed for on-campus international students to receive an FDA and state-approved vaccine before returning home for the summer.

“In my home country of Colombia, most elderly people and frontline workers were vaccinated with either AstraZeneca or Sinovac, both of which have proven to be substantially less effective than their American counterparts,” Valenzuela said. 

Prof. John Moore, microbiology and immunology, spoke about the issues Cornell’s vaccination policy raises, including different approval processes across countries and the lack of data on the effects of revaccination.

Moore said there is little data on the effects of receiving two full rounds of vaccination for different vaccines, though small-scale trials in Europe have produced positive results on the effects of receiving one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. 

“When we get into two doses plus two more we’re into the unknown. With students coming from countries in the Far East that have had Chinese inactivated virus vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac … there is no information at all about what happens when you combine those vaccines with the ones approved in the USA,” Moore said.

Despite the limited data on revaccination, Cornell is urging students to comply with these guidelines issued by New York State.

“There needs to be high-level discussions based on the science, or lack of the science, rather than just relying on some decisions made by some administrators somewhere in New York State who may not have thought this through,” Moore said.

Some international students have gone to great lengths to receive New York State-approved vaccines before the start of the fall semester. 

Minori Kawakami ’23, a student from Tokyo also received the Moderna vaccine while in Ithaca during the spring semester, but her family had to travel to receive it. 

“My mom and sister had to take a flight to the U.S. just to get vaccinated,” she said. “Vaccines in Tokyo are rolling in very slowly and with the Olympics happening, it isn’t really a focus for the government right now.”

Ysabella Vistan ’23 said she flew to New York in May to get the Pfizer vaccine, which has only just begun being offered in the Philippines, her home country where she was taking remote classes during the spring semester. 

“The experience getting the vaccine here was just super different from back home. A lot of people that go to Cornell or even just live in the U.S. are so lucky to have the resources and accessibility to the vaccine,” Vistan said. “Back home, it’s just so hard. People are sleeping outside of the vaccination sites so that they can get their [vaccine] early in the morning.” 

Cornell provided support through an International Student Town Hall on July 20 that further discussed this issue and other matters as the fall semester approaches.

As of July 30, about 49 percent of the total United States population had been fully vaccinated. And as of July 28, 22,693 students and 10,849 faculty and staff members had reported their fully vaccinated status, according to Cornell’s COVID-19 dashboard.