COVID-19 Vaccine Status: What You Need to Know

By ALPA Staff

In an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and return the U.S. and Canadian aviation industries to some semblance of normalcy, the FAA and Transport Canada recently announced policies allowing the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Therapeutics COVID-19 vaccines by medical certificate holders. In addition to working with these federal agencies throughout this process, ALPA has also been pressing for flight deck crews to expeditiously secure priority, voluntary access to these vaccines based on pilots’ status as essential workers.

In a letter to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in preparation for its Dec. 10, 2020, hearing titled “The Logistics of Transporting a COVID-19 Vaccine,” Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, reiterated that pilots and other airline workers would need accelerated access to the vaccines once they received clearance from the appropriate authorities. He noted that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency officially recognized airline flight crews as essential workers and highlighted the “alarming increase in COVID-19 exposure and infections” among certain ALPA pilot groups. In addition, DePete emphasized in the letter the critical role pilots continue to play in transporting the vaccines to communities across the nation.

On December 12, the FAA Office of Aerospace Medicine announced that it would allow the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The FAA advised, “Following the emergency use authorization [EUA] from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] for Pfizer, Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine, the FAA has determined that pilots may receive the vaccine under the conditions of their FAA-issued airman medical certification.” The announcement continued, “The agency’s medical professionals will continuously monitor the initial distribution of the novel vaccine and documented clinical results and will adjust these recommendations as needed.”

Use of the vaccine was authorized with the understanding that a 48-hour no fly/no safety-related duty interval must be exercised after each dose. In addition, pilots must be free of any significant side effects from the medication before flying again.

On December 18, the FDA granted a second EUA for the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Moderna Therapeutics, and the following day the FAA adopted a policy change for use of this medication by airline pilots, subject to the same conditions as the Pfizer vaccine. As Air Line Pilot went to press, the FAA had only allowed these two vaccines for use by medical certificate holders. Any additional COVID-19 vaccines would need to be authorized by the FDA before the FAA could consider them.

To the north, Health Canada certified the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for public use on Dec. 9, 2020, and the Moderna immunization on December 23. Transport Canada quickly responded, noting, “Transport Canada Civil Aviation Medicine does not restrict or limit aviators from taking vaccines that have been approved by Health Canada,” adding that the organization “does not impose grounding periods for aviators who wish to take vaccines approved by Health Canada.” However, pilots are encouraged to review Section 3.13 (“Immunizations”) of Transport Canada’s Aeronautical Information Manual for further guidance.

In a letter dated March 30, 2020, Director General of Civil Aviation Nicholas Robinson recognized Canadian airline pilots as essential workers. However, Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) indicated that the initial vaccine supply would be reserved for those over the age of 80, residents of senior living centers, certain health-care workers, and adults in indigenous communities. Essential workers such as airline pilots would be immunized as part of stage two of the national vaccine distribution. The NACI remarked, “Immunizing essential workers minimizes the disproportionate burden of those taking on additional risks to maintain services essential for the functioning of society.”

Airline pilots based in both the United States and Canada shouldn’t participate in trials of other manufacturers’ COVID vaccines at this time. 

Additional Vaccine Information

For the latest information about COVID-19 vaccines, members are encouraged to visit ALPA’s COVID-19 vaccine webpage.

U.S. ALPA members with questions about COVID-19 vaccines are encouraged to contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician about approved treatments and medical certification.

Canadian members with questions can call Canadian Pilot Assistance at 309-777-2572.

This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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