International passengers arriving in Australia may face vaccination registration roadblock

Vaccinated passengers flying into Australia once the international border reopens can only register their vaccine if it is recognised by the federal government – and at present just four vaccines qualify.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has rolled out an iPhone app that will allow border officials to verify vaccination certificate QR codes, easing travel for outbound passengers.

But for citizens and permanent residents returning to Australia – or visitors and students arriving – the Sinovac, Sinopharm, or Sputnik V vaccines can’t be registered on the Australian Immunisation Register.

The department advises that only four vaccinations are currently recognised by the Australian government.

“If you receive a Covid-19 Pfizer Comirnaty, AstraZeneca Vaxzevria, Moderna Spikevax or Janssen-Cilag (also known as Johnson & Johnson) Covid-19 vaccine while overseas, you can register your vaccination on the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) when you return to Australia,” the department’s official advice states.

“At this time, if you’ve received a Covid-19 vaccine overseas which is not one of these vaccines you cannot have it added to the AIR.”

The restriction potentially affects thousands of Australians who have been inoculated with vaccines developed in China or Russia.

China has developed two inactivated virus vaccines. One made by Sinopharm, given emergency approval by the WHO in May, and another by Sinovac, approved in June. Sputnik V was backed by Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

The recognition or rejection of foreign vaccines is potentially sensitive.

Thousands of foreign students forecast to return to Australia in the new year are expected to come from China, as well as from other countries where the Chinese vaccines have been widely distributed, including Nepal, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

A limited international student trial run by the New South Wales government this year will only accept students inoculated with an Australian-recognised vaccine.

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“The safety of the people of NSW is paramount and we are taking no risks. All participating students will be required to be fully vaccinated with a TGA-recognised Covid-19 vaccine, and strict quarantine protocols will be in place,” the NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, said.

New rules announced last week in the US, set to take effect in November, require non-citizens entering the US to be vaccinated with shots approved by either the US Food and Drug Administration or by the WHO. This includes Sinopharm and Sinovax but excludes Sputnik V.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said Covid-19 was a global “common enemy” and Russia would “not tolerate the attempts to restrict [and] discriminate” against its vaccine.

We support mutual recognition of vaccines approved by national oversight bodies, in the interests of lifting restrictions on international travel of citizens as soon as possible,” he told the UN general assembly.

Dfat has rolled out an app for iPhones to allow border officials to verify QR code vaccination certificates. The federal government will start issuing international Covid-19 vaccination certificates from 1 October.

The app’s description says that it has been developed in conformity with WHO protocols on secure vaccine certificates and that while the app “may include handling of data” Dfat “does not collect any data from this app”.

“If the QR code is authentic, the app displays the most important information from the certificate, including the holder’s biodata and Covid-19 immunisations. There is an option to view the complete dataset on the certificate,” the description states.

“The app displays information to indicate if the QR code is not a VDS-NC (Visible Digital Seal for Non-Constrained Environments), or if it is not authentic.”

Vaccinated Australians will be able to download their international vaccination certificate from myGov accounts from next month – this will be different from the domestic vaccine certificate already available.

Before the pandemic, airlines ran about 2,000 international flights in and out of Australia each week, carrying about 850,000 passengers. Currently, there about 200 commercial international flights a week. Planes are typically only 5-15% full.

The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia has said even with limited flights, more than 10% of international departures are experiencing long delays – averaging over 90 minutes.

“These delays are often due to the extensive, manual, health and border clearance processes. Large delays at departure are particularly a problem for network airlines because their passengers miss connecting flights at the global hubs. This can create further problems for these passengers by affecting Covid-19 test time (making the test result invalid) and quarantine requirements in their destination country.

“International airlines need better support so they can operate closer to schedule. These delays can be markedly reduced with the anticipated integrated digital verification system and allowing airlines to manage their aircrews to and from the crew hotels.”


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