If you are in the UK and have received the AstraZeneca jab, you may have been checking your batch number in the past few days to see if you were one of the 5 million Britons who received a version of the vaccine manufactured in India. That vaccine has not been approved by the European Commission for its new digital Covid certificate, which went live last week.
The certificate allows a vaccinated person to travel, without the need for quarantine or further testing, between the EU’s 27 countries (and four associated European nations). Hence headlines over the weekend about “travel bans” and Europe being “off limits” to some British travellers. However, the odds are that UK citizens will probably be fine and their travel to Europe will proceed unhindered: the prime minister himself said he was “confident” that there “will not be a problem” for travellers. It was just “an administrative hurdle” that should be “straightened out”, a member of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation told the BBC.
What isn’t in the headlines as much is that millions of other potential travellers have been in this situation for much longer, and are yet to receive any sort of clarity or reassurance. These are the residents of many non-European countries across the world who have received the Indian-manufactured vaccine, branded as Covishield, which has not been included in the EU pass. Covishield is approved by the World Health Organization and has been described as the backbone of the vaccination effort across Africa and in low- and middle-income countries.
What’s bizarre is that Covishield is merely an India-produced version of the AstraZeneca vaccine so, naturally, it was widely assumed that it would be given the same recognition in terms of travel and health status. Travellers to the EU living in countries distributing Covishield have been receiving conflicting information: on the one hand being reassured by governments that the vaccine they are receiving is safe and globally recognised; and on the other being rebuffed by EU embassies that robotically inform them their vaccination status may not be valid for travel.
Last month, according to east Africa-based travellers I have spoken with, the French embassy in Nairobi informed potential travellers that “for now the Covishield vaccine, even though it is produced under AstraZeneca licence, is not recognised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and France at the moment”. The news has triggered accusations that the EU is again raising the barriers of “Fortress Europe” against the rest of the world. Indian journalist Barkha Dutt called the perceived vaccine snub “ugly racism”.
Now a full-blown diplomatic crisis is unfolding. On the day the EU pass was launched without Covishield, India threatened retaliatory action, with a government source telling the BBC that Delhi would “institute a reciprocal policy for recognition of the EU digital Covid certificate” if India-produced vaccines were not added to EU travel passes. The Indian media reported the story using language that suggests national sovereignty has been slighted.
The irony is that the vast majority of Covishield vaccinations administered in low-income countries were only available as a result of a global effort, to which the EU has pledged £850m, called Covax, to combat the pandemic. Covax’s mission statement is “to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to C-19 vaccines once they are available, regardless of their wealth”.
A lot of the goodwill towards that effort, and trust in the donor nations, risks being squandered because of this unequal treatment by the EU of a vaccine it has previously been eager to market and fund. The absurdity of this was not lost on the African Union, which in a joint statement with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, criticised the “inequitable” treatment. They urged the EU to “consider increasing mandatory access to those [Covax] vaccines deemed suitable for global rollout”. In other words, if vaccines are safe and effective enough to be distributed by the EU, they are safe and effective enough to be accepted by the EU.
The optics are terrible. The episode touches all types of nerves, as it has in Britain – where it will no doubt do little to shift the post-Brexit stereotype of a spiteful EU. For non-western countries, the most inflammatory implication is that even though the two AstraZeneca vaccines are exactly the same, the one produced in India must be inferior: an idea that even taints some of the stock distributed in the UK. The whole affair sets a worrying precedent. After 18 months of drastically slowed down economic activity, setting up a two-tier system that affects trade and business travel would severely knock the ability of poorer countries to recover – not to mention the human cost paid by families separated across continents.
But beyond the headlines lies not overt prejudice, but bureaucratic procedures that result in de facto discrimination. According to the EMA, Covishield was not included in the vaccine passport scheme because its manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, had not applied for marketing authorisation; yet this would be an odd thing to do as the vaccine is not manufactured for marketing and use in Europe (the institute has since applied for authorisation). The EMA said that Covishield licensing under AstraZeneca was not enough because manufacturing conditions differed from facility to facility, therefore all licensees had to apply separately.
For now, the outrage expressed by non-European countries seems to have partly worked. At the end of last week seven European countries individually approved Covishield. But the fact that this predictable anger was unforeseen is revealing of a complacent bureaucracy oblivious to the needs and perceptions of most of the world.
There is a valuable lesson in all this. In the early days of the pandemic the challenge was in understanding that we were all in this together, that few are safe until everyone is. Today, this mantra is repeated by just about every scientist in the world.
But it’s becoming clear that protective solidarity requires not just goodwill and sharing of resources, but the dismantling of protectionist infrastructure that is not fit for purpose under the conditions of a swiftly mutating global virus. As millions of UK citizens find themselves caught on the wrong end of an inflexible system, and as Britain starts to contemplate its own post-vaccine travel rules and general reopening to the world, this is a lesson we should be paying close attention to.