Why is the move being opposed by India and the African Union and what does it mean for travellers?
The story so far: On July 1, the European Union implemented the EU Digital COVID Certificate (EUDCC) or the “Green Passport”, which allows ease of intra-European travel for passengers who have taken one of four vaccines ‘recognised’ by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that excludes Indian-made Covishield and Covaxin, among others. The move led to a sharp protest from India, as well as the African Union, as concerns grow over vaccine passports that discriminate against travellers from developing countries with limited access to vaccines. Some European countries have since relented, with a third of the 27-nation EU agreeing to include Covishield in the list of approved vaccines.
What does the EUDCC entitle passengers to?
The EUDCC, or the Green Passport, which is in the form of a digital QR code, attests that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, and also if they have had a recent negative test and/or are considered immune having previously contracted the illness. It is recognised by all 27 EU countries, as well as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway for passengers within Europe, who are bound not to need separate documentation for intra-EU travel.
How will it impact Indian travellers?
The EUDCC will impact Indians notionally at present, as only essential travel is allowed into EU countries and special permission has to be taken for those travelling from India. With global concerns over the Delta variant, which was first detected in India, more restrictions are in place for Indians travelling abroad. The European Union has pointed out that the EUDCC is only meant for passengers within the EU, and that most, if not all, residents would have received one of the four vaccines that have been cleared by the EMA — Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech), Vaccine Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Spikevax (Moderna) and Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca Europe). According to the EU, the Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield was a “biologically” different product and it hence needs to apply separately for EMA clearance. Both SII and AstraZeneca have since clarified that they are in the process of seeking clearances. Meanwhile, the road seems harder for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, as unlike Covishield, it has not received recognition from even the World Health Organization (WHO) and is in the process of completing its application there.
How did India register its protests?
During his visit to Italy for the G20 ministerial conference last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar registered a strong protest in his meetings with European counterparts as well as EU High Representative Josep Borrell Fontelles, as government sources indicated that India was prepared to initiate reciprocal harsh quarantine measures against countries that discriminated against Indians.
India’s concerns are three-fold. It feels vaccine passports will restrict passengers from countries that don’t have the same access to vaccines and will increase vaccine inequality. It also argues that the EU should recognise Covishield as it is no different from other AstraZeneca-licensed vaccines, and more broadly that all Indian-approved vaccines should be given recognition worldwide, and that passengers can be certified via the Co-WIN website.
Furthermore, officials point out that Covishield was distributed to 95 countries, mainly low- and middle-income countries of the global South, and the EU action discriminates against all of them. There is a hint of racism, they claim, in the fact that all vaccines cleared by the EMA are those that have been taken by residents in Europe and North America, whereas the ones excluded are those made and distributed far and wide in the rest of the world by Russia, India and China.
Backing India’s stand, the African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement raising concerns over the Green Passport, pointing out that the Covishield vaccine was the “backbone” of the EU-supported international COVAX alliance’s programme in Africa, along with the AstraZeneca-SkBio vaccine produced in South Korea.
What is the WHO’s stand?
In its interim guidance released on July 2, a day after the EUDCC was launched and implemented, the WHO published its ‘Policy considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to travel in the context of COVID-19’. In it, the WHO held categorically that vaccine passports should not be made mandatory for travel and should be optional, stating that proof of COVID-19 vaccination should not be required as a condition of entry and exit from a country.
Will the EU relent?
By bringing in the EUDCC, the European Union has made it clear that it intends to use these vaccine passports in some measure to differentiate between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t or have taken ‘unrecognised’ vaccines. However, with at least nine countries, including Austria, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland, agreeing to independently make exemptions for Covishield, and Estonia accepting both Covishield and Covaxin, there is hope that enough pressure will build on the EMA to include exemptions for Indian vaccines as well.