WHO advises against vaccine passports

Top News | Mary Ann Benitez 8 Apr 2021

The WHO says countries and territories in the western Pacific should not form travel bubbles via use of so-called "vaccine passports" as this could lead to vaccine inequality amid a lack of sufficient data on how long immunity will last.

Dr Babatunde Olowokure, regional emergency director of the WHO western Pacific region said: "We understand that travel restrictions have had significant economic impacts on every country."

"At the present time, the WHO's position is that national authorities and travel authorities should not introduce requirements of proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition of departure or entry for a number of reasons," Olowokure told an online press briefing of the WHO western Pacific region from Manila yesterday to mark World Health Day.

Olowokure pointed to two main reasons: "the efficacy of vaccines in preventing transmissions is not yet clear. And the second one being the current limited global supply of Covid-19 vaccines."

This comes as the WHO regional director Takeshi Kasai said at the same briefing that the tally of confirmed cases has surged in the region after several weeks of decline due to the introduction and local spread of variant strains that were first detected in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

Hong Kong senior officials have been dangling "vaccine passports" for residents to have their shots in the arm. It is also discussing forming travel bubbles with Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Australia and New Zealand also announced cross-border travel between them now that their Covid-19 outbreaks have been suppressed.

Olowokure said that while many vaccines have been shown to protect against the disease, studies are ongoing to determine if they stop transmission of the virus from vaccinated people to others.

"WHO recommends that people who are vaccinated should continue to carry out the risk-reduction measures that we know work and are based on evidence especially when traveling."

With a limited global vaccine supply, he said vaccine passports would lead to "preferential vaccination of travelers" that could lead to fewer vaccines for those who are considered at risk.

"If access to vaccination is unequal then we introduce inequity into the system and therefore this can also lead to unfairness."

Earlier yesterday from Geneva, the executive director of the World Health Organization's health emergencies program, Mike Ryan, said the WHO supports "certification of vaccination via paper or electronic as a means of providing personal health information to people who are vaccinated.

"It's a different consideration for what those certificates are being used outside of the health space," he said, pointing to its use for international travel or attending school.

The WHO through the International Health Regulations has "temporarily recommended to the director general that proof of vaccination should not be a requirement for the purposes of global travel," Ryan said, adding the issue will be discussed on April 15.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the Covid-19 response, said: "We are accused often of being broken record. And we will be happy to continue with this broken record until this pandemic is over." She said it has been the sixth week in a row of increasing cases globally in all WHO regions.

"Vaccination is only one element of the response strategy. There are a number of interventions, public health measures that drive transmissions down."

The WHO regional director Kasai said: "Vaccines offer us all great hope, but for now they are in relatively short supply. It is vital that these limited doses currently available are given to those who are most at risk of infection, starting with health workers, and then other vulnerable groups at higher risk of severe disease, such as old people and those with underlying conditions."

He said vaccinating the priority groups is important also because of the spread of the mutant strains.

The western Pacific is home to a quarter of the world's population but accounts for just 1.5 percent of globally recorded cases of Covid and 1.1 percent of global deaths.

Still, Kasai said Covid-19 has resulted in almost 32,000 deaths in the region.

"Although we have been comparatively fortunate in this region, with just 1.5 percent of globally recorded cases, now several countries are currently experiencing surges."

Olowokure said the Philippines has officially reported locally-acquired cases with the B117 (or UK variant) and B.1.351 (South Africa) and imported cases of P1 mutant first detected in Brazil.

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