- [11:03pm, 7 Jul, 2021] An earlier version of the article said the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by SKBio was not accepted by the EU green pass programme. This is incorrect; the SKBio vaccine is among the list of approved vaccines.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, Asians have been vocal about hate that has rocked their communities worldwide. Much of that unreasonable prejudice has been in the form of targeted racist attacks. However, discrimination can take many forms.
Often, it is far more insidious and subtle than blatant threats or outright physical or bodily harm, especially when it creeps into social discourse through official policy. This kind of hidden bias is exactly what we witnessed with the European Union’s Digital Covid Certificate, which came into effect on July 1.
International travel to the EU is currently suspended, but once travel resumes, these rules would likely apply to international travellers as well. The “green pass”, as it is more popularly known, will disproportionately affect people of colour, discriminating widely against Asians, Africans and much of the developing world.
At first glance, the policy seems innocuous and well-meant. It’s a digital proof of vaccination, allowing vaccinated travellers greater freedom of movement across the European Union, without the need for tiresome quarantines in every country.
However, to have this privilege, travellers must have been vaccinated with one of four EU-approved vaccines – Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Vaxzevria, the latter developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University in Europe and the United Kingdom.
There are some notable omissions on this list – every vaccine manufactured outside the global West, for instance, despite their having received emergency approvals by the World Health Organization. The Russian-made Sputnik V has been under EU’s “rolling review” since March and the Chinese Sinovac since early May.
And while those assessments could possibly take time, even those who have taken AstraZeneca jabs manufactured in other parts of the world, such as India’s Covishield, have not been authorised for travel under the green pass as yet, even though these vaccines are being manufactured with the identical formula to the EU approved Vaxzevria.
Excluding the vaccines produced by Covishield from the green pass discriminates against a large segment of the world’s population. In February, the WHO listed both Covishield and SKBio for emergency use, approving their roll-out under the Covax Facility, the WHO initiative for the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
While vaccines have been the source of much debate in recent months, there is one aspect on which most people tend to agree: when you cannot choose, you take the vaccine that is available and offered in your country. And with the West fuelling vaccine inequity, most of us cannot choose.
The vaccination picture worldwide is a study in stark contrasts – of the 3.5 billion doses administered worldwide, only 1 per cent have been administered in low-income countries. Richer countries have had access to a greater variety of vaccines, stockpiling excessive doses, even as lower-income countries have struggled to vaccinate their people.
In such a scenario, Covax plays a vital role in righting this wrong. Despite its many challenges, including a terrible surge of Covid-19 across South Asia in April, Covax has since February delivered over 70 million doses. to 126 low and middle income countries, with ambitious plans to reach the 1 billion mark by the end of the year.
However, if entry into the EU is being denied because these vaccines aren’t good enough protection, why are they being distributed through Covax in the first place, an alliance which is supported and philanthropically funded by many European countries, including Sweden, Germany and Italy?
It is no secret that AstraZeneca has had a rather bumpy ride with European regulators. It was authorised for use in Europe at the end of January but has since run into one controversy after another.
In March, several countries in Europe banned it briefly due to concerns over cases of blood clots emerging as a rare side-effect in people under 30. Despite its published efficacy data from Phase 3 clinical trials showing 76 per cent efficacy after the first dose and 82 per cent after the second, the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy has been repeatedly questioned; a German newspaper recently even falsely claimed that it wasn’t effective in an elderly population.
However, none of this explains why the UK/European-made Vaxzevria version of AstraZeneca jabs is acceptable for the green pass, but travellers who received the Indian-manufactured version of the vaccine are not.
A health worker administers the Covishield vaccine, India’s version of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute, during a special vaccination drive for students travelling overseas in Hyderabad on June 11. Photo: AP
India even threatened retaliatory action, saying it would allow ease of travel only for European countries that recognised its Covishield and Covaxin vaccines.
And in a startlingly inconsistent move since the green pass was announced, some European countries, including Estonia, Greece, Spain and Iceland, have since accepted the Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccine. Media reports suggest that they bowed to pressure, not because they realised the discrimination involved, but because they wanted to allow UK-based holiday travellers into the EU. Nearly 5 million British people have been vaccinated with batches of India’s Covishield.
On July 1, the day the green pass came into effect, the WHO issued a statement urging all countries to accept the vaccines that it has authorised. Failure to do so could undermine the authority of the global health regulator, and if every country were to cherry-pick its own vaccines, it could mean even more difficulty and chaos for travellers.
In a Covid-19 world, it’s evident that vaccines are becoming the new tools of discrimination and division. Decolonising global health should be an urgent priority, otherwise medicines meant to heal will leave deep, festering wounds.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, southern IndiaInternet Explorer Channel Network