Vaccine Certificates Are Making Global Travel Harder, Not Easier

Vaccine certificates were ostensibly rolled out to help facilitate cross-border travel as vaccination numbers increased. But thanks to vaccine geopolitics, the opposite is happening.  

Montse, a Mexican friend of a Catalan friend of mine, was supposed to come to Barcelona at the beginning of July, as she does just about every year, to visit old friends and family. Last year, for obvious reasons, she didn’t. But this year was going to be different. She made sure she did everything right. She booked the flight months in advance, got fully vaccinated, through the university she works at, and did a PCR test two days before her flight, which came out negative. Yet she never left the ground.

On her arrival at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez airport, Montse was politely informed by Aeromexico/KLM staff that she wouldn’t be able to board the plane. When she asked why, she was told: “you took the wrong vaccine.” That vaccine was Chinese-manufactured Sinopharm.

Wrong Vaccines 

This is happening to more and more people, particularly in less advanced economies, as vaccine passports sprout into existence in more and more places. Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore have already introduced them in recent months. On July 1, the EU became the first major global economy to do so, with the ostensible aim of easing travel within and (in theory) to Europe for EU citizens and residents who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. But it’s also making it hellishly hard for many vaccinated people from other parts of the world to visit the continent.

The reason for this is that the EU (European Union) Digital COVID Certificate programme only relaxes travel to and within the region for recipients of one of the four vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA): Comirnaty (BioNTech-Pfizer), Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Spikevax (Moderna) and Vaxzevria (Oxford-AstraZeneca). Among the vaccines that haven’t made the grade are Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s Sinopharm, Sinovac and Cansino; India’s first indigenous Covid-19 vaccine, Covaxin, and Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that is produced under license by the Serum Institute of India.

This means that people from places that are not on the EU’s safe list of third-party countries that have received one of these vaccines are barred entry, unless the country they hope to visit has made exemptions. Their number is legion. 

Russian and Chinese-made vaccines, together with Covishield, have dominated vaccine supplies in many parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, mainly because US pharmaceuticals couldn’t find a good enough profit angle for their own vaccines while many Western governments have preferred to hoard their own supplies. The result? While around 25% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, just 1% of people from low-income countries are partially vaccinated.

Even the World Health Organization is calling the West out on its greed. “Some countries and regions are actually ordering millions of booster doses before other countries have had supplies to vaccinate their health workers and most vulnerable”, said World Health Organization Leader Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, adding that the global community is “making conscious choices right now not to protect those most in need.”

The World Health Organization also flagged concerns earlier this year that vaccine certificates would create “two types of citizen”: the vaccinated and the non-vaccinated. This is particularly unfair to those in the many countries where it is still difficult to access vaccines. They will essentially be unable to travel beyond their borders for the foreseeable future. But the problem goes even deeper than that. It now turns out that many of the millions in these countries who have managed to get vaccinated will also be unable to travel to places where the vaccines they have taken are not approved.

In an article in April I warned that vaccine passports, given the current state of vaccine geopolitics, would end up making global travel a lot more complex rather than easier:

To all intents and purposes the West is already locked in a new cold war with China and Russia. Tensions are escalating on an almost daily basis. Against such a backdrop, it’s hardly beyond the realms of possibility that at some point down the line countries or companies in the West will refuse to recognise vaccines certificates that are based on Russian or Chinese vaccines, and vice versa. The justifications for doing so will only grow as bad news continues to emerge about the efficacy and safety of vaccines.
Over the past weekend Western news sources reported that George Fu Gao, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Prevention and Control, had publicly acknowledged that Chinese-made vaccines currently offer low efficacy against the virus. “We will solve the issue that current vaccines do not have very high protection rates,” he said, adding that adjusting the dosage or sequential immunisation and mixing vaccines might boost efficacy.
Since then China has backtracked on the comments. But the episode nonetheless raises serious questions for those nations relying heavily on the Chinese jab, including many in Latin America. If Chinese vaccines are not as effective as originally thought, it’s perfectly feasible that some countries in the West will refuse to acknowledge vaccine passes sporting the name of a Chinese vaccine. As such, rather than freeing up global travel, vaccine passports could up erecting new barriers.

Quid pro Quo

Neither China or Russia have launched their own vaccine passports, though China is considering issuing one by the end of this year. Neither country has approved any of the four Western vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, J&J and AZ). Beijing has started issuing visas to foreigners who need to travel to China for business, work or to meet relatives, but only after they have taken a Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccine. That’s all but impossible in countries where Chinese-made vaccines are not approved, such as, say, India. 

Returning to Europe, Brussels’ exclusion of Sinopharm, Sinovac and Covishield is hard to fathom since all three of the vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the World Health Organisation (WHO). What’s more, as Politico reports, Covishield has played an integral role in the global vaccine sharing scheme, COVAX:

As of July 2, the COVAX facility had distributed more than 95 million COVID-19 vaccines to 134 mainly low- and middle-income countries — the vast majority of them Covishield. Specifically, the India-made vaccine accounts for 96 percent of doses delivered in India and more than 90 percent of those given in Africa, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The reason the Digital Green Certificate doesn’t recognize Covishield is that the vaccine does not currently carry market authorization within the EU, and its manufacturing site has not been assessed — both of which are required steps for the vaccine to receive EMA approval. The institute now states that it will submit a request for approval, but in the meantime, Covishield recipients are in limbo.

“Promoting Inequality”

Each country within the EU is free to approve entry of travellers who have received other WHO-approved vaccines. Spain, for example, which depends massively on incoming tourism as well as its close business ties with Latin America, accepts travellers who have received the three Chinese-made vaccines, Sinopharm, Sinovac and Cansino. They include millions of people across Latin America. But just because Spain has opened the door to these people does not mean they will actually be able to arrive. As Montse learnt, if you have to make a stopover at an airport in another European country that doesn’t accept travellers who have received one of those vaccines, such as Schiphol (Amsterdam), you won’t reach your destination.

When the EU green pass was announced, New Delhi reciprocated by declaring that it would only allow ease of travel from European countries that give mutual recognition to Covishield and Covaxin. Since then, 15 EU Members States have confirmed they will accept travellers who have received the Covishield jab, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. But recipients of Covishield, including an estimated 5 million people in the UK, are still barred from 12 EU countries, including France and Italy.

Many of the world’s poorer countries objected to the idea of vaccine passports from the very start. India argued that such a move would be highly discriminatory, given the low access to vaccines amongst developing countries. The African Union (AU) issued a similar statement, arguing that the digital certificate programme promotes “inequalities”, which could persist indefinitely. The fact that all this is happening as more and more breakthrough cases are registered for the very vaccines upon which these vaccine certificates are predicated, suggesting that said vaccines are even less effective at preventing the spread of the virus than originally thought, is, to put it mildly, deeply concerning.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. GM

    The more important issue is that this point it is becoming increasingly apparent that the vaccines are not going to last much longer than a year, if that. And one is potentially able to transmit from the start, but that wanes first, so even if many are not able to transmit immediately post-vaccination, by the one year mark, it is quite likely that most will be able to transmit. Possibly a lot earlier than that.

    How many stories like this one:

    Of large outbreaks in 100% vaccinated populations (with “good” vaccines) will it take before it is widely understood that the very idea of some magical difference between the “fully vaccinated” and the “vaccinated” is bankrupt?

    And what will “fully vaccinated” even mean once it is also widely understood that the protection decays as fast as it does…

    1. Isotope_C14

      Well said GM.

      Just wait until the goalposts are once again moved to “Triple vaccinated” means fully vaccinated. I expect the PMC to embrace this, though if IM DOC is correct and subsequent shots come with even worse side-effects, perhaps they might wake up a bit.

    2. saywhat?

      And what will “fully vaccinated” even mean once it is also widely understood that the protection decays as fast as it does… GM

      Maybe not:

      Many people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 will probably make antibodies against the virus for most of their lives. So suggest researchers who have identified long-lived antibody-producing cells in the bone marrow of people who have recovered from COVID-19.

      The study provides evidence that immunity triggered by SARS-CoV-2 infection will be extraordinarily long-lasting. Adding to the good news, “the implications are that vaccines will have the same durable effect”, says Menno van Zelm, an immunologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. from Had COVID? You’ll probably make antibodies for a lifetime

        1. Glossolalia

          Now that Trump is out of office, the only remaining tried and true clickbait is anything about covid, even if its based on the most threadbare evidence. In short, one can find just about any story to back one’s opinion, from vaccines being miracle cures to vaccines being barely effective at all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          1. saywhat?

            Except I thought Nature was a reputed source.

            Not that I’m advocating that people be vaccinated (unless their personal risk indicates it) but that those who have had a mild case of Covid and recovered (estimated by the CDC to be over 100 million in the US) should not be counted among the 52% unvaccinated but deserve a separate category and that no one should be in rush to vaccinate with these current EXPERIMENTAL, LEAKY vaccines unless the individual’s risk (e.g. being obese, having high blood-pressure, etc.) warrants it relative to vaccine risk.

            Thus I object to Lambert’s recurring lament that “only 48% of the US population is fully vaccinated.” He may regret those words later.

      1. Sutter Cane

        For the layman, current evidence seems inconclusive either way. This is still a new disease and if I can avoid catching it, I would rather avoid it. I’m vaccinated, but I’m still planning on avoiding crowds and wearing an N95 until we know a bit more.

        1. Arizona Slim

          Sotto voce: I just stocked up on N95s. And I’m still wearing a [family blogging] mask whenever I’m in an enclosed space.

    3. Peter Lynch

      Question GM – could you please explain “it is becoming apparent that the vaccines are not going to last much more than a year?” What are your source or sources?


      1. GM

        Vaccine efficiency in Israel has dropped like a rock since B.1.617.2 entered, which is also 6 months after the first vaccinations were completed.

        “Dropped” as in zero apparent efficiency over the last couple weeks:

        Israel vaccinated earlier than everyone else so such an effect will be seen there first.

        And it was expected — Moderna has been warning that after 6 months there is little neutralization activity left against the more divergent variants for a few months now:

        Antibody neutralization titers against B.1.351 and P.1 variants measured by SARS-CoV-2 pseudovirus neutralization (PsVN) assays before the booster vaccinations, approximately 6 to 8 months after the primary series, were low or below the assay limit of quantification, although geometric mean titers versus the wild-type strain remained above levels likely to be protective

        So this is a case of a prediction founded on data by people who know what they are talking about coming true.

    4. Dwight

      BBC says: “As part of routine testing, a small number of crew from the Carrier Strike Group have tested positive for Covid-19” and reports there are 3,700 crew members in the group, but does not report that the Queen Elizabeth that had 100 infected crew members had about 700 crew members on board.

    5. Basil Pesto

      I remain unvaccinated but am now a lot more interested in getting one as Australia seems to be on a bit of a delta knife edge.

      A thought occurred to me this week as to how we might better conceive of the vaccinations, which has been my conception without really realising it until I thought about it this week: Thinking of them as a last line of defence, instead of a (or, in many places, the only) first line of defence. That’s to say, we should think of them, ideally, as a kind of failsafe, after taking various NPIs (border control, masking, ventilation) and prophylaxis (vit D, melatonin and the rest). This is instead of the prevailing “magic bullet” cure theory of the vaccine (although this theory is becoming less prevalent by the day).

      I’d be interested in whether you & the other medical/Covid brains trust posters think this line of thinking has any merit/utility from a public health point of view, although I suspect it’s too late to broadly change the messaging now.

      1. The Rev Kev

        I have a line of thought that I was wondering about too. Supposing you decide to go for a vaccination here. The only ones that will be on offer before too long after AstraZeneca stocks are exhausted will be the mRNA ones, namely Pfizer & soon Moderna. Now you have the first one and then a coupla weeks later go for the second one. From reports, the third one can really knock you down hard which makes people reluctant to get a fourth. Just to make it interesting, all those running off to get a vaccine now will no longer be covered either in several months time when it wears off. Can you imagine what the world-wide situation will be next year as all this plays out? It has the potential to be an absolute shambles. And lets not talk about the probability of the Delta strain being supplanted by a more ornery version by next year which we have not yet seen.

        1. Basil Pesto

          All fair points, the known unknowns are a serious concern. I’m fine with getting two rounds of mRNA vax while delta remains at risk of becoming a serious threat in Australia, but next year? I don’t know what I’ll do, and hope we continue to get relatively lucky in terms of the disease in comparison with the rest of the world, and hope that superior, possibly intranasal vaccines come along and that treatment and prevention protocols are meaningfully improved. But it’s not something I’m willing to bet on.

  2. Thuto

    This is just Western exceptionalism writ large. Data coming out of Israel is already pointing to reduced protection against currently prevalent variants wrt transmissibility for vaccines manufactured in the West and approved in the EU, effectively putting them in the same box as the Chinese vaccines in this regard. What then is the basis for continuing with predicating the whole vaccine passports saga on out-of-date data, if not to forcibly pry open global south markets for Big Pharma? After all the “we are all in his together as the human family” battle cries from last year It really didn’t take long for the West to revert back to type.

  3. David

    I’ve always said that the problem is less vaccination as such (where hopes of vaccinating the world were always unrealistic) but the practical problems of operating any kind of passport system. For example, the EU vaccine passport (I have one) is not compatible with the UK system, so anyone travelling across the channel has to isolate for ten days even if they are fully vaccinated. It’s not just a “yes/no” thing either. The government here has already said that they want old people and the vulnerable to receive booster shots from September. The idea of an international system acceptable everywhere and giving peoples’ current vaccination status reliably is a fantasy.

    1. Tom Doak

      The solution will be to abdicate responsibility as a country and turn the decisions over to private companies- the airlines.

      1. David

        Except that most movement into the EU is across land frontiers. Same goes for most of Africa and a good part of Asia.

      2. GM

        More likely the abdication will be total and there will just be no control over it whatsoever.

        Or at least there will be attempts to move in that direction.

        Whether those are successful depends on future viral evolution — there has to be a level of mortality that the population will not tolerate that is somewhere between the current IFR and what the IFR will eventually rise to if transmission is not stopped (it has already at least doubled in 18 months, but the evolutionary potential is clearly there for something with a 10% lethality or higher).

    2. R

      This is a live problem for a friend who is a single parent in Paris and whose elderly mother lives on her own in the rural UK and appears to be in bad mental health (not going out, not answering the telephone, various new medical conditions that she will not divulge, worrying tendency to confabulate on the telephone if she does answer).

      Friend is trying to visit granny for a week with son and has everything booked but:
      – France is currently on the amber list (entry allowed with quarantine and test-to-release after five days)
      – UK is muttering about putting France on red list because of its high prevalence of South African variant (a vaccine escapologist strain), which would mean 14 days mandatory hotel quarantine with an eleven year old, in order to visit her mother for a few days. Not feasible with her work, finances or mental health, having done lockdown in a Paris flat under curfew for months.
      – UK is changing its rules to permit entry without quarantine for the doubly vaccinated but friend’s vaccinations in the EU, while of UK approved vaccines, cannot be accepted by UK vaccine passport system

      At the moment, the only route looks like cross-fingers-and-hope for amber status or otherwise route them via Ireland (which can accept EU vaccination papers) after 19th July and spend 10 days there on holiday without quarantine inside the UK common travel area and then come across to the UK.

      This is just about practical in the summer vacation period but what my friend’s mother needs is regular family visits, to figure out what is going wrong (depression, disease, dementia…). Not possible for the moment and with no date of resumption, it would seem.

      As a cherry on top, one of life’s ironies is that a colleague is on the board of a company providing the EU Covid passport infrastructure and so professional I have to smile on the idea, when personally it appears to be the thin end of the wedge for freedom of movement.

      1. GM

        UK is muttering about putting France on red list because of its high prevalence of South African variant (a vaccine escapologist strain)

        God forbid there’s rampant immune escape COVID variant spread in the UK…

    3. fumo

      Except vaccine requirements for travel aren’t a new thing. Such requirements have been in place and used successfully for decades. It’s hard to argue something that has already routinely been done for many years, even scaled up, is suddenly a hopelessly unrealistic expectation.

      And I don’t find it strange at all that EU countries are not recognizing vaccines that have never been formally tested for safety or efficacy by the EU. Indeed, it’d be stranger if they did recognize them,

      1. Thuto

        To your last paragraph, it’s the pretense by those who hold this viewpoint that this is purely about science and not politics that I find to be disingenuous. It’s intellectually dishonest for EU politicians to cloak a foreign policy agenda with a safety and efficacy cover story. Astra Zeneca has, after all, been the most problematic of the Western vaccines with well documented challenges yet it’s still considered good enough to be part of the vaccine passports program. This is a foreign policy issue and a state sponsored business development tool for big pharma to pry open markets in developing countries.

        1. David

          Political considerations are always present, but my own experience of the EU is that it is an intensely legalistic, bureaucratic system, where there are rules to cover everything, and indeed this is the basis of the criticism that it’s acted too slowly in the case of the virus. Here, I suspect that a large part of the problem is that the EU is prevented legally from acting without the approval of the EMA, and that institutions or states that did so could be taken to court by any member of the very large anti-vax lobbies. I often find it hard to explain to people how a court can overrule national decision-makers, but it’s like that. The point of course is that if you waived this rule, you couldn’t do so globally. Not even the fiercest free-market fanatic would actually want to try lots of vaccines from everywhere out at the same time and see which killed the fewest people. I’m sure there are good vaccines that have not yet been tested, and I’m just as sure that there are bad ones, but you need some kind of way of discriminating. (The AZ vaccine is fine, by the way, I took it, and the number of abreactions is tiny).

          1. Zamfir

            A lot of the strict rules are about reduction of risk to the person who takes the vaccine. There high demands make sense. Including the approval of specific plants etc, to make sure that there no bad batches, or 1-a-100,000 deviations from the tested product, etc.

            But all that strict stuff is not relevant for vaccine passports. Perhaps some vaccines reduce transmission a bit more than others, but none do it perfectly and all seem to do something.

      2. Irrational

        I would agree that in principle it makes sense for the EU to only admit people that have had an EU-approved vaccine.
        However, the EU has widely touted its EUR 1 billion contribution to COVAX and then proceeded to not recognize the vaccines used by COVAX, primarily Indian-produced.
        As an EU citizen I find this a shameful of not walking the talk.
        By the way, at least one EU country is requiring that people from outside the EU must have had EU-approved vaccines administered by an EU authority – which is simply not possible.
        All I can say is that COVID apparently causes brain damage even without infection with a very tight race to pass the stupidest legislation.

  4. Mikel

    The bigger picture cluster &*%# is what this means in general about politics and finance affecting the global cooperation of scientists to solve a host of issues.

  5. PaulL

    My experience traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, UK, and Greece.

    ** First trip, London, Santorini, Athens, London, back.

    Could only stay in UK with land-side transfer. Got to stay overnight and see a few things before heading off to Greece. They only required a vax card, but they were testing people in the airport. About 75% of the Ryanair flight got tested.

    From Athens to UK, again a PLF with a negative covid test was required.

    ** Second trip

    Amsterdam, Brussels, London

    Was going to fly into London again, but now the UK Is toxic. Belgium and other countries were not allowing you to enter if you’d been there are were not a Belgium national. Looks like Greece is restricting now too whereas before they were open.

    Amsterdam required a negative Covid test, Belgium also. Filled out the documents and took the train but no one checked them. Flight to London, again PLF form and negative Covid test required.

    Only Greece recognized vaccination status.

  6. XXYY

    I’m not sure what the overall point is here. That we should make international travel as easy as possible during a deadly global pandemic, and vaccine certificates are hampering this?

    This seems very much at odds with the reality of what’s going on in the world. The Delta variant took about two months to become a global threat, well-established or dominant in 50 countries around the world. I assume this has a lot to do with ubiquitous air travel and porous international borders in general. Complaining about vaccine certificates seems like it means we are learning the wrong lessons.

    1. Thuto

      No, the point is that foreign policy diplomats are now in charge of public health responses, and are bringing their entrenched, nationalistic and entirely unscientific biases to bear on a global problem that is least suited to being solved by politicians suffering from a severe bout of first worldism. There’s no credible, objective, and scientific criteria being used to decide which vaccines are good enough for the vaccine passport program, instead it’s the usual “Russia/China bad, West good” politics that are driving the decisions.

      1. Brian Beijer

        I know this sounds like a tin-foil hat theory, but here it goes. I’m wondering if the reason why the denial for the Chinese and Russian vaccines isn’t based more on the inability to use tracking procedures for those vaccines rather than based on their efficacy. That would maybe explain the acceptance of Astra Zeneca despite it’s efficacy rate not being so different than the Chinese vaccine. Every vaccine should have an identification code which is then coupled to your digital pass… at least that’s what they use in Sweden and I assume soon to be all European countries. That digital pass becomes an identity marker even more accurate than tracking your cell phone. More significantly,it also allows…or dis-allows…you to travel and have access to public spaces, at least in France as of now. Quite convenient for future purposes. We know that there are more than 5 Eyes in the digital sharing alliance between the U.S., Uk, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. My guess is that almost all western European countries are at least a partner. But not China nor Russia. I’m sure that my little tin-foil hat theory can be shot down in a million ways. But, knowing that our governments hate to waste a good opportunity to become more totalitarian, I have to wonder if there’s not something to it…

Comments are closed.