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…

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