WHO advises against mandating vaccine for international travel, for now

Jessica Wong

A senior World Health Organization official said Monday that so-called “vaccine passports” for COVID-19 should not be used for international travel at this time because of numerous concerns, including ethical considerations that coronavirus vaccines are not easily available globally. At a press briefing, WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said […]

A senior World Health Organization official said Monday that so-called “vaccine passports” for COVID-19 should not be used for international travel at this time because of numerous concerns, including ethical considerations that coronavirus vaccines are not easily available globally.

At a press briefing, WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said there are “real practical and ethical considerations” for countries considering using vaccine certification as a condition for travel, adding the UN health agency advises against it for now.

“Vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis,” Ryan said. WHO has previously noted that it is still unknown how long immunity lasts from the numerous licensed COVID-19 vaccines and that data are still being collected.

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Ryan also noted the strategy might be unfair to people who cannot be vaccinated for certain reasons and that requiring vaccine passports might allow “inequity and unfairness (to) be further branded into the system.”

The matter is of particular interest to Israelis since the country leads the world in vaccinations per capita, with over 5 million of its 9.29 million citizens receiving at least one dose. Most of the remainder of the population consists of children under 16 who cannot be inoculated.

Channel 12 news reported Monday, citing senior officials in the health and transportation ministries, that despite the country’s high vaccination rate, Israelis will not be able to fly abroad for tourism until at least May, and possibly not until July.

The report said the officials explained that it is unknown whether vaccinated people can potentially bring new mutated strains to the country, and that even if tourism will reopen, it will only be to select countries that accept “vaccine passports.”

Israeli Green Pass holders enjoy singer Ivri Lieder at a concert organized by the Tel Aviv municipality, at Bloomfield Stadium, March 5, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel has been using “Green Pass” documents in public spaces to reopen the economy, allowing access for vaccinated citizens and those who have recovered from COVID-19 to entertainment, sporting, and dining venues that have largely been inaccessible to all since the pandemic reached the country.

Hopes have been high that such a system could be introduced internationally.

Israel recently eased restrictions on citizens returning to the country, but there remain limited options for travel abroad without quarantining at the destination.

Currently, only Georgia recognizes Israel’s “Green Pass.” The US does not recognize it and Israelis who travel there must provide a negative virus test and spend time in quarantine.

Agreements over the past month with Greece and Cyprus that would allow Green Pass holders to travel between the countries without quarantine or taking virus tests have so far not been formally signed.

Diplomatic sources told the Ynet news site this week that the European Union, of which both Greece and Cyprus are members, strongly objects to any of its members individually signing agreements on green passes.

Germany in particular is against the idea, according to the report, because it sees the green pass system as a form of discrimination against those who do not want to be vaccinated, as well as out of a desire to help boost internal tourism within the European bloc.

Last week, the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said it would propose rules for an EU vaccine “green pass” this month, as the bloc prepares to ramp up its COVID-19 immunization drive.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen addresses European lawmakers during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, January 20, 2021. (Francisco Seco/AP)

Separately, in a meeting with German MEPs and MPs, von der Leyen said her EU executive would “in coming months” seek to create a technical base for the digital certificate so that it is based on the same information in all 27 member countries.

There is still a big debate in the EU, however, over how such a European green pass might be used.

Tourist-dependent countries and airline lobby groups want the document to serve as a “vaccine passport,” allowing immunized people to avoid tests or quarantine when traveling. But most EU countries, led by France and Germany, believe that this is premature while vaccinations are available only to a small fraction of the population, and all the currently approved vaccines require two injections for immunization.

They fear it would create a two-tier society where inoculated people enjoy a restriction-free life while the majority, waiting for their shots, continue to have their activities curtailed.


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