EU travel pass criticised over ‘inequality of access’

Author(s): Syriacus Buguzi, Source: , Date: 29 July 2021

 A mandatory pass for travel within the European Union during the COVID-19 pandemic has come under fire for leaving behind lower-income countries reliant on the COVAX facility for vaccinations.

The EU Digital Covid Certificate, dubbed the “green pass”, came into force Thursday (1 July), with the aim of easing travel across the bloc.

However, concerns were raised after it emerged that it does not recognise people inoculated with Covishield, an AstraZeneca vaccine brand produced by the Serum Institute of India.

The pass will include information about vaccines and tests taken for COVID-19. It is available for passengers who have had the AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria), Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Under current rules, Covishield recipients would be excluded as the vaccine has yet to be approved by the EMA.

However, media reports citing an Indian foreign ministry source said on Thursday as many as nine out of the 27 EU member countries plan to allow Covishield as proof of immunity for travellers, regardless of the pass restrictions.

SciDev.Net could not independently confirm the reports by the time of publication.

The Covishield vaccine was approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for emergency use in February and is being rolled out through the COVAX facility to provide access to lower-income countries, as well as in India.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and the African Union (AU) say the developments are “concerning, given that the Covidshield vaccine has been the backbone of the EU-supported COVAX contributions to the AU member states’ vaccination programmes”.

“Under such regulations, persons who received Covishield, despite being able to demonstrate proof of vaccination, would continue to be subject to public health restrictions, including limitations of movement and testing requirements, with considerable administrative and financial implications,” they said in a joint statement on 28 June.

They urged the European Commission to extend eligibility to vaccines approved for COVAX, and warned that inequalities in access to green passes could “persist indefinitely” if the Serum Institute of India did not apply for Covishield authorisation in the EU market.

The European Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Serum Institute of India Chief Executive Officer Adar Poonawalla said in a Tweet that he had taken the matter up “at the highest levels” and hoped to resolve it soon “both with regulators and at a diplomatic level with countries”.

“I realise that a lot of Indians who have taken Covishield are facing issues with travel to the EU,” he wrote.

Tanimola Akande, a professor of public health at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, believes the green pass controversy should set the stage for renegotiating vaccine standards with the WHO.

“A case should be made that as long as a vaccine meets WHO standards, it should be regarded as equal and qualifying for the green pass,” says Akande.

Akande sees the omission of Covishield as “introducing politics of vaccine superiority outside WHO” which he says “is uncalled for and goes against the call for non-nationalisation of vaccines”.

The WHO has said countries “should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry”.

Mwidimi Ndosi, a senior lecturer in rheumatology nursing from the University of the West of England, Bristol in the United Kingdom, said: “Because the WHO has been opposed to vaccine passports, it seems the producers of Covishield did not foresee the need to comply with authorisation in the European Union market.

“This, to me, is more of an administrative issue that should be resolved soon. I would have been concerned more if it was to do with the quality of the vaccines.

“People who received vaccines through the COVAX facility may be tempted to think that it’s an issue of quality and feel treated as second class. That’s not [the case],” he adds, stressing that the quality of Covishield has not been doubted so far.