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WHO disapproves Covid vaccine passport at the moment

April 07, 2021 | 14:03

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said on Monday that The World Health Organization would not back Covid vaccine passports at the moment due to uncertainty over whether inoculation prevents transmission of the virus.

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“We as WHO are saying at this stage we would not like to see the vaccination passport as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not certain at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmission,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.

Passengers check-in at airline counters at the Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport in Guadalajara, Mexico December 9, 2020. REUTERS/Fernando Carranza/File Photo
Passengers check-in at airline counters at the Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport in Guadalajara, Mexico December 9, 2020. REUTERS/Fernando Carranza/File Photo

“It’s not coming as quickly as we had hoped because we need more data,” she said, declining to provide more information, citing confidentiality.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appealed last month to countries with excess vaccine supplies to donate 10 million doses urgently to the COVAX facility which it runs with the GAVI vaccine alliance. Export restrictions by India left the vaccine-sharing programme short of supplies of AstraZeneca’s vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India, according to Reuters.

Harris said she had no update on any countries stepping forward, adding: “We are very much looking for more vaccine”.

Travelers wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 reclaim their luggage at the airport in Denver, Colorado, US on Nov 24, 2020. (Reuters/Kevin Mohatt)
Travelers wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 reclaim their luggage at the airport in Denver, Colorado, US on Nov 24, 2020. (Reuters/Kevin Mohatt)

COVID vaccine passports: How they could let travel take off again

Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Vaccine passports are not a new idea. Frequent international travelers might be familiar with vaccine cards, which are typically a yellow paper showing a persons' vaccinations. Certain areas require proof of vaccination against illnesses like yellow fever or tuberculosis.

President Joe Biden in January issued an executive order directing agencies to assess the feasibility of linking coronavirus vaccinations to vaccine cards, also known as "international certificates of vaccination or prophylaxis," and producing a digital version, according to U.S News.

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the White House coronavirus team, said it's not the role of the government to create such a passport or hold that kind of data on its citizens. Still, the Biden administration is involved in the efforts and will provide guidance to the private sector on the topic.

While proving vaccination could help pave the way for a return to normalcy across several industries, travel would likely benefit the most. Vaccine passports have been proposed as a way to make governments, citizens and travelers more comfortable with opening up to tourism.

While proving vaccination could help pave the way for a return to normalcy across several industries, travel would likely benefit the most. Vaccine passports have been proposed as a way to make governments, citizens and travelers more comfortable with opening up to tourism.

The U.S. Travel Association and other groups have asked the Biden administration to set a May 1 deadline to come up with a plan to reopen the U.S. to international visitors.

"If nothing is done to lift international travel bans and bring back demand, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that a total of a 1.1 million American jobs will not be restored and $262 billion in export spending will be lost by the end of 2021," the groups wrote in a letter to the administration.

Coronavirus vaccine passports could help provide a feeling of safety while traveling, but health officials say it is too soon to know if such a feeling is warranted.

"We're still in a place where we don't know how much that vaccination prevents you from transmitting the virus," Raymond says.

But that hasn't stopped some places from exploring the idea or something similar to it.

The European Union recently proposed a "Digital Green Certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic." It would be digital proof that the person has been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the coronavirus.

The International Air Transport Association is developing a mobile application called "Travel Pass" that displays coronavirus test results or proof of inoculation with the aim of providing "governments with the confidence to reopen borders without imposing quarantines on incoming travelers."

And IBM is working on a "digital health pass" as a way to "to bring people back to a physical location, such as a workplace, school, stadium or airline flight."

The downsides of Covid vaccine passport

Coronavirus vaccine passports could help provide a feeling of safety while traveling. (GETTY STOCK IMAGES)
Coronavirus vaccine passports could help provide a feeling of safety while traveling. (GETTY STOCK IMAGES)

It's already been established that more research into coronavirus vaccination and transmission is needed, but experts believe equity could be an additional concern with vaccine passports, U.S News reported.

"It is hard to imagine how vaccine passports could be put into place in a way that would make travel safer around the world in an equitable manner," Mercedes Carnethon, vice chairwoman of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says in an email.

While the U.S. has administered over 143 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, dozens of countries have yet to administer a single shot.

Should a coronavirus vaccine passport be put into place for international travel, it would clearly put countries that have less access to vaccines at a disadvantage.

WHO's stance is that "national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission." It added that "preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease."

There are also privacy concerns to consider, as people may not be willing to share their health data with companies.

And it's unclear how much interest U.S. citizens would have in such a system, given that people already seem to be willing to travel within the country regardless of their vaccination status. Young spring breakers have taken to Florida beaches, prompting officials to label the developments "warning signs" of a potential backslide in progress against the coronavirus.

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