5 million people in the UK will be ineligible for the EU’s Covid-19 ‘passport’. This is because they have received a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in a plant not approved by the EU. This thrusts back into the spotlight a question asked in our report UK Public Opinion & Vaccine Passports – should governments grant ‘passports’ to vaccines their own medicines regulators have not approved for their own populations?
Our research found that people in the UK overwhelmingly supported their introduction for international travel – which is the purpose of the EU’s vaccine passports. In fact, two thirds of UK people surveyed supported their introduction to manage our cross-border movements, with only 16% opposed.
The issue with the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate stems from a technical – arguably administrative – problem. The AstraZeneca vaccine is approved by the European Medicines Agency (the overarching medical regulator for EU countries), alongside three other vaccines – Pfizer/BioNtech; Moderna; and Johnson & Johnson. The vast majority of the UK’s AstraZeneca jabs were manufactured in Britain. However, around 5million doses were produced by India’s Serum Institute. Although identical to the UK’s domestically produced batches, the Serum Institute manufactured vaccines are known by a different name – Covishield. As Covishield is not approved by the EU Medical Agency, people could be refused entry to EU countries which choose to follow the regulator’s advice to the letter.
If it is identical, how would the EU Digital Covid Certificate ‘know’? Well each batch of vaccines is assigned a number. This number makes the manufacturer of the vaccine identifiable – meaning the EU passport will display whether the Serum Institute or an ‘approved’ manufacturer made the vaccine shot into a person’s arm.
In reality, nine EU countries have already said that they will treat people vaccinated with batches produced in India the same way they treat those jabbed with the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in Britain (or elsewhere).
It also has huge implications for many other parts of the world as the Indian manufactured version of the AstraZeneca vaccine vastly outnumbers doses produced in Britain and the EU. Compared to the Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna jabs, the AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper and logistically easier to distribute. As such, it accounts for the bulk of the vaccines distributed via aid programmes – which makes the issue in relation to ‘approval’ in Europe potentially particularly discriminatory towards middle and lower-income countries.
The fundamental question raised by this issue, however, goes much deeper than musings on ‘administrative’ and regulatory requirements. What if you have received a vaccine that is not identical to one approved by a country’s medical regulator? Does this mean you will be ineligible for a ‘Covid passport’? Could you be denied entry or forced to quarantine in Europe if you have only received China’s Sinopharm or Russia’s Sputnik vaccines?
Some European countries have already indicated that they are willing to accept people vaccinated with medicines not approved by their own regulators. Both Greece and Cyprus, for example, have said that they will welcome people to their countries – without requiring quarantine – who have had two doses of the aforementioned Russian or Chinese vaccines .
This comes at a time when the UK is wrestling with the question of whether to introduce its own Covid/vaccines certification scheme – in terms of both domestic settings and for international travellers.
Earlier this year, our research found there was widespread public support for their introduction both internationally and domestically:
It is far from clear as to whether the UK will choose to introduce a vaccine passport at all, but if they do – as raised in our original research paper – deciding upon which vaccines will be eligible for a ‘passport’ will be tricky.
If the UK Government chooses to only include vaccines approved by their own regulators, they could potentially lock out millions of tourists, business travellers and expatriates who have received jabs in countries where non-UK approved vaccines are widely used.
This issue with a single batch of AstraZeneca has caused a heated reaction in the UK – and many other countries too. Imagine the fallout if the UK chooses to lock out – through quarantine requirements – millions of people from around the world via a Covid passport system that does not recognise some of the most globally prolific vaccines.
At the same time, the UK Government must mitigate the risk of new variants, as well as those liable to spread or fall ill with Covid when entering the country, thus impacting the country’s ability to manage the virus and lift social distancing restrictions.
It poses a difficult question, but it will need answering sooner rather than later.