WHO is looking at ‘e-vaccination’ certificates to allow people to travel – but says antibodies in people who have recovered from Covid-19 should not qualify for ‘immunity passports’

  • The WHO recommended that countries do not begin issuing immunity passports
  • A number of governments have suggested they are a route back to normality 
  • British experts warned issuing immunity passports would lead to inequality
  • WHO: Rich nations will lose hundreds of billions if vaccine isn’t issued equally

The World Health Organisation is looking at ‘e-vaccination’ certificates to allow people given the coronavirus vaccine to travel, a representative said on Thursday.

But the UN’s health body also said antibodies in people who have recovered from Covid-19 should not qualify for so called ‘immunity passports’.  

Therefore, the WHO recommended countries do not issue such passports to people who have recovered from the virus, and also said it did not recommend allowing people to cross borders based on testing.

‘We are looking very closely into the use of technology in this COVID-19 response, one of them how we can work with member states toward an e-vaccination certificate,’ said Siddhartha Datta, Europe’s WHO programme manager for vaccine-preventable diseases, told reporters on a call from Copenhagen.

Estonia and the United Nations health agency in October started a pilot project for a digital vaccine certificate – a ‘smart yellow card’ – for eventual use in shared healthcare data tracking and to strengthen the WHO-backed COVAX initiative to boost vaccinations in developing countries.

Governments are hoping that ‘immunity passports’ could be a route back to normality after the coronavirus pandemic, but the WHO has warned that antibodies in people who have recovered from Covid-19 should not qualify. The organisation is looking at the possibility of ‘e-vaccination’ certificates to allow people who have had the vaccine to travel

The reality of vaccinations is growing, since Britain on Wednesday approved a COVID-19 shot from Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, while other companies Moderna and AstraZeneca have delivered positive trial data amid their push for approval.

Dr Datta cautioned that any technology initiative must not overwhelm countries in the midst of pandemic responses, must conform to varying laws and ensure seamless border-crossing service.

For instance, some national COVID-19 tracing apps do not function abroad.

A number of governments, including those of the UK, the US, Germany and Italy have suggested using immunity passports as a way to return to some level of normality following the pandemic.

Work to develop health passports are currently underway in the UK and abroad with the goal of expediting a return to global travel. 

Estonia earlier this year separately began testing a ‘digital immunity passport’, potentially to track those recovered from COVID-19 with some immunity, though questions remain over whether, or for how long, someone might be protected.

But another WHO official, Catherine Smallwood, the WHO’s Senior Emergency Officer for Europe, on Thursday said the agency is sticking to guidance against using immunity passports as part of bids to resume some cross-border travel normalcy.

‘We do not recommend immunity passports, nor do we recommend testing as a means to prevent transmission across borders,’ Smallwood said, urging countries instead to base travel guidance on COVID-19 transmission data.

Smallwood also said rapid antigen tests, in use by some airlines to test passengers boarding or getting off flights, may be ‘less appropriate’ for enabling international travel. The antigen tests are less accurate than molecular PCR tests, so some people might slip through the cracks.

British researchers warned on Thursday against introducing passports on mass until coronavirus tests and vaccines are available to everyone.

A number of governments, including those of the UK, the US, Germany and Italy have suggested using immunity passports as a way to return to some level of normality following the pandemic (stock image)

According to a report by academics at the University of Exeter, health passports could interfere with fundamental human rights.

‘Digital health passports may contribute to the long-term management of the Covid-19 pandemic, but their introduction poses essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights,’ said the report’s author Dr Ana Beduschi, a professor of law, according to The Independent. 

‘They build on sensitive personal health information to create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status, which can then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights individuals may enjoy.’

Dr Beduschi added that health passports could deepen existing societal inequalities. 

Her warning comes as the WHO said on Thursday that rich nations stand to lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output over the next five years if poorer countries do not get equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

The WHO report came amid growing concerns over ‘vaccine nationalism’.

On Wednesday, the UK because the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for mass use. Work to develop health passports are currently underway in the UK and abroad with the goal of expediting a return to global travel

As the WHO seeks to plug funding gaps in its ACT Accelerator programme for global COVID-19 treatments, researchers said their findings showed there was a financial – as well as a moral – case for ensuring equal access.

‘Governments are increasingly focusing on investments that can help their own economies to rebound,’ said Hassan Damluji, deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which commissioned the report by the Eurasia Group research firm.

‘The ACT Accelerator is precisely one of those investments. It is both the right thing to do, and an investment that will pay dividends by bringing the global economy back from the brink, benefiting all nations.’

The ACT Accelerator (Access to COVID-19 Tools) is an international programme working to support the development of COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines and ensure they are available around the world.

As nations prepare to roll out mass COVID-19 vaccination programmes, with Britain becoming the first to approve a vaccine for use this week, there has been concern that ‘vaccine nationalism’ could see poorer countries left behind.

In a report on Thursday, the WHO said that rich nations stand to lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output over the next five years if poorer countries do not get equal access to COVID-19 vaccines

The WHO says the programme needs £28 billion – of which about £21 billion is still outstanding, without which lower-income countries will not be able to get prompt access to COVID-19 drugs including vaccines.

Thursday’s report assessed the economic benefits of ensuring swift, equal global access to vaccines to 10 major economies – Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.

It found boosts to the global economy as a result meant they stood to gain at least £113 billion in 2020-21, and £346 billion by 2025, in an analysis based on IMF World Economic Outlook forecasts of varying vaccination scenarios.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the report, and said contributing to the ACT Accelerator was ‘the smart thing for all countries – socially, economically and politically’.

Its findings are in line with an earlier study that found wealthy countries stood to lose £88 billion a year through uneven vaccine access, said Andrea Taylor, a researcher at the Duke Global Health Institute’s project tracking COVID-19 data.

‘It is in the best interests of wealthy nations to invest in equity and it will cost all of us more if we don’t, both in terms of mortality and GDP,’ she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.       

HOW DO THE OXFORD, MODERNA AND PFIZER/BIONTECH VACCINES COMPARE? 

Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have both released interim results of the final stage clinical trials of their vaccines, with both suggesting they are extremely effective. 

Oxford University has published the findings from its second phase, which show the jab provokes an immune response and is safe to use – it is not yet clear how well it protects against coronavirus in the real world.

Here’s how they compare: 

CREATOR:

MODERNA (US)

PFIZER (US) & BIONTECH (DE)

OXFORD UNIVERSITY (UK)

How it works: 

mRNA vaccine – Genetic material from coronavirus is injected to trick immune system into making ‘spike’ proteins and learning how to attack them.

mRNA vaccine – both Moderna’s and Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccines work in the same way.

Recombinant viral vector vaccine – a harmless cold virus taken from chimpanzees was edited to produce the ‘spike’ proteins and look like the coronavirus.

How well does it work?

94.5% effective (90 positive in placebo group, 5 positive in vaccine group) .

95% effective (160 positive in placebo group, 8 positive in vaccine group).

62% – 90% effective, depending on dosing.

How much does it cost?

Moderna confirmed it will charge countries placing smaller orders, such as the UK’s five million doses, between £24 and £28 per dose. US has secured 100million doses for $1.525billion (£1.16bn), suggesting it will cost $15.25 (£11.57) per dose.

The US will pay $1.95bn (£1.48bn) for the first 100m doses, a cost of $19.50 (£14.80) per dose.

Expected to cost £2.23 per dose. The UK’s full 100m dose supply could amount to just £223million.

Can we get hold of it?

UK has ordered five million doses which will become available from March 2021. Moderna will produce 20m doses this year, expected to stay in the US. 

UK has already ordered 40million doses, of which 10million could be available in 2020. First vaccinations expected in December.

UK has already ordered 100million doses and is expected to be first in line to get it once approved.

What side effects does it cause? 

Moderna said the vaccine is ‘generally safe and well tolerated’. Most side effects were mild or moderate but included pain, fatigue and headache, which were ‘generally’ short-lived. 

Pfizer and BioNTech did not produce a breakdown of side effects but said the Data Monitoring Committee ‘has not reported any serious safety concerns’.

Oxford said there have been no serious safety concerns. Mild side effects have been relatively common in small trials, with many participants reporting that their arm hurt after the jab and they later suffered a headache, exhaustion or muscle pain. More data is being collected.

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