Rethink needed over international vaccine acceptance

Vaccination rates among seafarers are improving, but we need a shared global standard

By Susanne Justesen and Kasper Søgaard, Global Maritime Forum

For the past 20 months seafarers all over the world have been deeply affected by Covid-19, which has un- leashed an unprecedented crew change crisis. A key factor in resolving this cri- sis is to ensure that seafarers have access to vaccines.

Recent months have fortunately brought about a steady increase in vaccination rates among seafarers. But to enable seafarers to live, work, travel, board and disembark safely, we need to work together to ensure that vaccination rates keep improving and that all vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) are recognised globally.

At the Global Maritime Forum, we publish a monthly Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator to provide reliable data on vaccination rates. The Indicator is based on data from 10 top ship managers who are collectively responsible for more than 90,000 seafarers across all the major segments. The Indicator is therefore indicative, but likely to overestimate the actual proportion of vaccinated seafarers.

Since we began reporting on vaccination rates four months ago, we have seen a steady increase in vaccine rates every month, from 15.3% seafarers having been vaccinated in August 2021, to 41% as of November 1, with an almost ten percentage point improvement from the month before.

This positive trend is largely due to a number of ports worldwide now providing vaccines to non-domestic international seafarers. These ports are primarily located in the US, Europe, and more recently also in Singapore. But we need many more ports and authorities worldwide to make vaccines available to seafarers, domestically and internationally.

Standard needed

Making more vaccines available is, however, not the only challenge. We also need a shared global standard for seafarer vaccines. WHO currently recognises seven different Covid-19 vaccines, but even if approved by the global health authority, these vaccines are not globally accepted. This means that a seafarer vaccinated with the Chinese SinoVac or the Indian Covid-shield vaccines (both WHO-approved), will not be considered fully vaccinated by European countries or operators.

Similarly, a seafarer vaccinated with the WHO-approved Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, will not be considered fully vaccinated in China.

For this very reason, many seafarers have opted for topping up existing vaccines with other vaccines in order to be able to travel and/or work. This situation is not only a waste of vaccines – in the light of global vaccine shortage – it may also pose unknown medical risks to seafarers. We therefore urgently need a shared global vaccine standard for seafarers, for instance by reaching an agreement which ensures that seafarers inoculated with a WHO-approved vaccine are accepted as fully vaccinated internationally, by all countries, ports, shipowners, and charterers.

Last, but not least, we need seafarers to be recognised as key workers globally, as called for by the Neptune Declaration, issued and signed by more than 850 companies from across the maritime industry earlier this year.

According to BIMCO, 65 of the 174 IMO-countries have now designated seafarers as key workers. This is great progress, achieved through close collaboration between governments and the global maritime industry. But we need the key worker status to be applied as a fully global standard in order to allow seafarers to travel safely without quarantines and delays when boarding or disembarking. Seafarers need to be able to safely offboard when they need to, whether for crew change, for treatment at a hospital or for getting a vaccine shot.

Seafarers thus need to be recognised as the important key workers they are and be treated accordingly – with priority access to globally approved vaccines in more ports worldwide.

Without seafarers there is no global trade, so we need to keep pushing for all governments to treat seafarers as key workers to keep both our seafarers and our global supply chains safe.

Susanne Justesen is senior project lead and Kasper Søgaard is managing director and head of institutional strategy and development at the Global Mari- time Forum. For more information on the Neptune Declaration visit Neptune Declaration (