By Dr Yatharth Kachiar,
With the receding second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the countries worldwide are preparing for the resumption of global travel. Economies heavily reliant on tourism will gain some respite with the revival in international travel. These countries have suffered tremendously due to a complete fall in tourist activities due to the pandemic. Similarly, businesses across the world will also benefit from the reopening of global travel. For this, many countries are planning to resume travel with the help of ‘Vaccine passports’- a certificate in a paper or digital format that will certify the vaccinated or low-risk status of the traveller. However, such vaccine passports are not treating all WHO-approved vaccines equally while determining the vaccinated status of a person. Soon, a person’s right to free movement will depend on their choice of the vaccine. Moreover, resorting to ‘vaccine passports’ when only a small percentage of the population in the Global South is vaccinated will create undue exclusion and discrimination against the people and businesses in these countries. Perhaps, that is why Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan raised strong objections against the concept of Vaccine passports during the G7 meeting earlier in June.
In this regard, the European Union’s ambitious COVID Digital Green Pass that came into effect on July 1st has raised similar concerns in India and other developing countries. The EU’s COVID Digital certificate allows a person to travel more freely within the EU region, covering 27-member states. The certificate will testify that the concerned person has been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 or tested negative 24 hours before travelling. However, under the ‘vaccinated’ category, the EU Digital COVID certificate recognizes only the vaccines approved for market authorization within the EU region by the European Medical Agency (EMA), the sole authority on scientific evaluation of medicines and vaccines in the EU. It includes only Pfizer/BioNTech’s Comirnaty, Moderna’s Spikevax, Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaxzevria and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen.
Consequentially, from July 1st onwards, only persons who have taken these EMA-approved vaccines can travel freely within the EU region. Any other vaccine, such as WHO-approved Covishield, manufactured by Serum Institute of India under license from Oxford-AstraZeneca, is not recognized by EMA. However, the EU has clarified that the “Green pass” is not a precondition to travel. Nevertheless, people vaccinated with Covishield in India and other countries where New Delhi has exported its vaccines, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, Mauritania and other African countries, might face specific issues while travelling within the EU. Despite being vaccinated by Covishield, such persons might encounter public health restrictions while travelling within the EU region, including restrictions and limitations on free movement and testing requirements with significant financial, mental, and administrative implications.
The Indian government has raised strong objections against the EU’s COVID certificate policy. In a similar move, the African Union Commission and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) also strongly criticized the EU’s policy on granting COVID certificates. It observed that the “current applicability guidelines put at risk the equitable treatment of persons having received their vaccines in countries profiting from the EU-supported COVAX Facility, including the majority of the African Union (AU) member States.” Interestingly, as per the Africa CDC statement, “Covishield vaccine has been the backbone of the EU-supported COVAX contributions to the AU Member States’ vaccination programmes.”
In response, the EU has clarified that individual states can accept WHO-approved vaccines such as Covishield. Consequently, over 10 European countries have recognized Covishield, including Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, Estonia and the Netherlands. Further, as per reports, EMA stated that it did not receive an application from Covishield for market authorization within the EU region. Moreover, as per the EU rules, before granting clearance to a vaccine, the EMA must assess the concerned vaccine’s manufacturing sites and production process. Therefore, despite approval of Vaxzevria, a version of AstraZeneca vaccine, the Covishield, which is also manufactured under the license obtained from AstraZeneca, did not get automatic approval.
The recognition of Covishield by individual European countries is a boost for the credibility of the vaccine and a win for the Indian government. However, without EMA’s recognition, the persons vaccinated by Covishield can only travel to individual countries that have approved the vaccine and not the entire EU region. Furthermore, Indians who have received Covaxin might face more hurdles since the vaccine is yet to receive even WHO approval. In this regard, the best way forward would be to apply for the EMA approval of Covaxin without further delay.
There is no doubt that stringent border controls are necessary to stop the spread of new variants. However, granting authorization to vaccines primarily used in Europe and North America would create discrimination against the developing world and the Global South. Routing the crisis unleashed by the pandemic would require global effort and coordination. However, the countries in the Global South are fighting an altogether different battle against the pandemic than the developed world. These countries are struggling with low access to vaccines, but simultaneously, they have to contend with the discriminatory practices of the developed world concerning free movement and vaccine visas. Amid the pandemic, one must remember: “That which is not good for the swarm, neither is it good for the bee.” In the end, it is not exclusionary or discriminatory policies but a strong sense of community at the global level that will finally help us navigate this crisis.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at Manipal Center for European Studies (MCES), Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal, Karnataka. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)