Seafarers come primarily from five countries, some of which have not been able to secure enough WHO-approved vaccines.
Some sailors have taken to getting shots of WHO-approved vaccines even though they've already been vaccinated.
The Omicron variant is set to add new complications as governments tighten travel restrictions.
Some seafarers are getting vaccinated multiple times in attempt to comply with the different COVID-19 regulations at various ports, as challenges persist for men and women who work on the seas.
"Seafarer travel still remains challenging as there are issues with international travel vaccine recognition and approval," said the Global Maritime Forum in a recent report. "This has even led some seafarers to take repeated vaccinations, at an unknown health risk," the not-for-profit organization added.
The situation has arisen as some vaccines — such as Russia's Sputnik V — are still being assessed by the World Health Organization and are not on its approved list. Other regulatory regimes, like the European Medicines Agency, also have their own lists of approved vaccines.
Most sailors in the world come from five countries: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. Some of these countries have not been able to secure enough WHO-approved vaccines. As a result, some sailors have taken to getting shots of WHO-approved vaccines even though they've already been inoculated with non-WHO-approved vaccines — just so they can work on ships in other parts of the world.
Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, said it's "totally unacceptable" that seafarers have to get multiple vaccines to do their jobs, Seatrade Maritime reported.
The issues around vaccine recognition are among multiple problems in the shipping industry, including vaccine hesitancy and supply challenges in some places, said the Global Maritime Forum in its report. In the coming months, access to booster shots is likely to become a new challenge, it added.
The emergence of the new Omicron variant has thrown another spanner into the works, with new complications to shipping routes expected as governments tighten travel restrictions and other virus containment measures.
Restrictions have already kicked in at key crew-change hubs, where sailors swap out to take a break after four to six gruelling months at sea.
Singapore on Thursday suspended crew changes for those with recent travel history to seven African countries including South Africa, the country's Maritime and Port Authority said in a circular. Hong Kong has put in similar restrictions for 44 countries on its high-risk list.
This comes on the back of China mandating quarantines of up to seven weeks for returning seafarers and banning crew changes — a move that is rippling down the already-strained global supply chain.
"We are bracing for impact and buckling up our seatbelts. We are expecting longer quarantine period, tighter testing regime and restrictions for vessels coming from South Africa and neighbouring countries," Carl Schou, president and CEO of Wilhelmsen Ship Management, told Splash247, a trade media outlet.
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