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.
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.
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.