New EU travel regulation could exacerbate global COVID vaccine divide

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist who is working with the ONE Campaign’s COVID-19 Aftershocks project.

EU countries will issue a COVID-19 vaccine certificate that excludes key vaccines distributed through the COVAX facility – which is financed by many of the same countries – placing Africans at a unique disadvantage.

Africans who have expressed concern over the extremely stringent and punitive visa application procedures of EU countries now have to contend with another barrier to their entry to Europe. On 1 July, the EU began rolling out the Green Pass, a digital COVID certificate that is only issued to people who have been vaccinated with one of four vaccines, namely, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Vaxzervria by AstraZeneca-Oxford, and Janssen by Johnson&Johnson.

This digital certificate is being issued to ease travel to and within Europe, but it has placed Africans at a particular disadvantage: the majority of vaccinated people in Africa have received Covishield, the AstraZeneca vaccine that has been distributed to African countries through the COVAX facility. This means that Africans who have been given doses of this vaccine might only be eligible to travel to a handful of European countries that have approved it, namely, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, Greece, Estonia, Spain, Switzerland, and Iceland. However, even if granted a visa, individuals will only be allowed to travel within these countries, not the rest of the EU.

This regulation comes in the wake of a Henley Passport Index report that indicates that an increasing number of countries, including Australia, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, and Singapore, are banning Kenyan citizens and nationals of other African countries from entering their borders to protect their citizens from new variants of the coronavirus. Canada, which has approved Covishield, has closed its borders to almost all foreign visitors and placed strict restrictions on others, including international students.

A closer look

The EU is being criticised for not only failing to share vaccines with African countries but also for not approving Covishield, currently the most widely used COVID vaccine (more than 90%) in Africa. Covishield is the backbone of the COVAX facility, which has been spearheaded by the World Health Organization and supported by donors, including the EU. The only African countries that have received the EU-approved Pfizer vaccine are Cape Verde, Rwanda, South Africa, and Tunisia. Covishield is biologically identical to the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, but it has not received the European Medicines Agency (EMA)’s marketing approval.

More so, the Green Pass has been widely condemned by African governments as well, who say that their citizens now have to contend with additional visa restrictions in addition to the “vaccine apartheid” that they are already experiencing. Less than 2% of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus because not enough doses have been made available to African countries, even under COVAX. This is particularly concerning because data suggests that African countries are in the throes of a third wave of the pandemic. Only four vaccines per 100 people have been delivered in Africa, compared to 70 vaccines per 100 people in Europe. So even if the Covishield vaccine is eventually approved by the EMA, the fact that the majority of Africans are yet to be vaccinated means that their travel options to Europe and other regions of the world are already and will continue to be severely limited.

Double standards

The African Union (AU) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), which are headquartered in Ethiopia, have condemned the new EU regulation. In a joint statement, the AU and the Africa CDC expressed concern that the new EU guidelines would “put at risk the equitable treatment of persons having received their vaccines in countries profiting from the EU-supported COVAX Facility.”

Africa CDC director Dr. John Nkengasong warned that the EU policy could make Africans doubt the efficacy of Covishield and increase levels of vaccine hesitancy, and accused the EU of adopting double standards. At an Africa CDC press briefing, he said, “I was at the airport, together with the head of the European delegation at the African Union, [and] received the COVAX vaccines from India that fateful morning, very early in the morning at 6 a.m. So, for them to turn around and say that they will not recognize the vaccine is very troublesome, and we hope they will reverse that condition very quickly.” He also pointed out that the decision by the EU to exclude Covishield is “not based on science or data.”

Strive Masiyiwa, the AU’s special envoy who is steering Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine acquisition team, suggested that the EU policy is hypocritical. “They [EU countries] finance COVAX. So how do we get to a situation where…they give money to COVAX who go to India to purchase vaccines, and then they tell us those vaccines are not valid,” he asked.

Mixed messages

The European Commission has responded to these criticisms by stating that individual EU member states can decide how they wish to enforce the new policy. A spokesperson for the Commission told Health Policy Watch that individual member states could interpret the policy,“ so as to authorize entry to vaccinated recipients of the Indian-made Covishield vaccine.” While the European Commission can make EU-wide decisions based on advice from the EMA, EU member states still have the freedom to deviate from EMA recommendations if they choose to do so.

Much of the blame is being placed on the Serum Institute, the main supplier of Covishield to the COVAX facility. Vaccine manufacturers are required to request authorization from the EMA, which includes submitting testing results, and the EMA running independent tests and inspections on those vaccine manufacturers. The Indian manufacturer’s Covishield vaccine is not among the list of vaccines currently under review for EMA approval, and the uproar surrounding the new EU regulation has forced the Serum Institute to look into the matter more seriously. The vaccine manufacturer’s CEO, Adar Poonawalla, issued a statement recently, saying he hopes to resolve the matter soon.

The WHO, on the other hand, is opposed to any type of “vaccine passport,” and recommends that the same rules should apply to all those who have received vaccines approved by the organization, including Covishield. The UN’s health agency, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, and UNICEF have been involved in the research, procurement, and delivery of vaccines under COVAX. A joint COVAX statement said that the EU has essentially created a “two-tier system” that will widen the global vaccine divide and exacerbate inequities. “At a time when the world is trying to resume trade, commerce, and travel, this is counter-effective, both in spirit and outcome,” said the statement. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus echoed this sentiment recently when he stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the divide between the haves and the have nots.

The ONE Campaign has been consistently advocating for the fairer distribution of vaccines to African countries. This new EU travel regulation discriminates against those vaccinated under the COVAX facility, says David McNair, Executive Director for Global Policy at ONE. “If the EU is serious about fair and equitable global recovery, that must extend to the recognition of vaccines covered by COVAX – the facility that the EU has explicitly supported to deliver vaccines fairly and equitably,” he said.

Stay informed

For more on the health, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19 in Africa, check out ONE’s Africa COVID-19 Tracker. It pulls together the latest real-time data from global institutions, governments, and universities about the impacts of the pandemic for the continent and for every African country – including information on food security. For more insights and analysis, sign up for our Aftershocks newsletter and follow us @ONEAftershocks.

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