LONDON (AP) – After Dr Ifeanyi Nsofor and his wife received two doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine in Nigeria, they assumed they would be free to travel this summer to a European destination of their choice. They were wrong.
The couple – and millions of others who were vaccinated thanks to a UN-backed effort – could be barred from entering many European and other countries because those countries do not recognize the Indian version of the vaccine for travel.
Although the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in Europe has been cleared by the continent’s drug regulatory agency, the same vaccine made in India has not been given the green light.
EU regulators said AstraZeneca failed to complete the necessary paperwork on the Indian plant, including details of its production practices and quality control standards.
But some experts describe the EU decision as discriminatory and unscientific, pointing out that the World Health Organization inspected and approved the plant. Health officials say the situation will not only complicate travel and frustrate fragile economies, but also undermine confidence in vaccines by appearing to label some substandard vaccines.
As vaccine coverage increases in Europe and other wealthy countries, authorities anxious to save the summer tourist season are increasingly relaxing border restrictions against coronaviruses.
Earlier this month, the European Union presented its COVID-19 digital certificate, which allows EU residents to move freely within the bloc of 27 countries as long as they have been vaccinated with one of the four vaccines authorized by the European Medicines Agency, have a new negative test or have proof that they have recently recovered from the virus.
While the United States and Britain remain largely closed to outside visitors, the EU certificate is seen as a potential travel model in the COVID-19 era and a way to boost economies.
Vaccines officially approved by the EU also include those manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. They do not include the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India and many other vaccines used in developing countries, including those made in China and Russia.
Different EU countries are free to apply their own rules for travelers from inside and outside the bloc, and their rules vary widely, creating further confusion for tourists. Several EU countries, including Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, allow people to enter if they have received vaccines not approved by the EU; several others, including France and Italy, do not.
For Nsofor, the realization that he could be banned was “a rude awakening”. After a difficult year working during the pandemic in Abuja, Nsofor and his wife were eagerly awaiting a European vacation with their two young daughters, perhaps admiring the Eiffel Tower in Paris or visiting Salzburg in Austria.
Nsofor noted that the Indian-made vaccine he received had been cleared by WHO for emergency use and was supplied through COVAX, the UN-backed program to deliver vaccines to corners. the poorest in the world. The WHO approval included a visit to the Serum Institute of India factory to ensure it had good manufacturing practices and quality control standards were met.
“We are grateful to the EU for funding COVAX, but now they are essentially discriminating against a vaccine that they have actively funded and promoted,” Nsofor said. “This will only leave room for all kinds of conspiracy theories that the vaccines we get in Africa are not as good as the ones they have for themselves in the West. “
Ivo Vlaev, a professor at the British University of Warwick who advises the government on behavioral science during COVID-19, agreed that Western countries’ refusal to recognize vaccines used in poor countries could fuel mistrust.
“People who were already suspicious of vaccines will become even more suspicious,” Vlaev said. “They could also lose faith in public health messages from governments and be less willing to comply with COVID rules. “
Dr Mesfin Teklu Tessema, director of health for the International Rescue Committee, said countries that refused to recognize WHO-approved vaccines were acting against scientific evidence.
“Vaccines that have reached the WHO threshold should be accepted. Otherwise, it looks like there is an element of racism here, ”he said.
WHO has urged countries to recognize all vaccines it has authorized, including two vaccines made in China. Countries that refuse to do so “are undermining confidence in life-saving vaccines that have already been shown to be safe and effective, affecting vaccine uptake and potentially putting billions of people at risk,” the UN health agency said United in a statement this month.
In June, Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla tweeted he was concerned about vaccinated Indians facing travel issues to the EU and said he was raising the issue at the highest level with the regulators and countries.
Stefan De Keersmaeker, spokesman for the EU executive, said last week that regulators were obliged to check the production process at the Indian factory.
“We are not trying to create doubts about this vaccine,” he said.
AstraZeneca said it only recently submitted the documents on the Indian plant to the EU’s medicines regulatory agency. He didn’t say why he hadn’t done so sooner, until the agency made its initial decision in January.
Public health experts have warned that countries that refuse to recognize WHO-backed vaccines are complicating global efforts to resume safe travel.
“You can’t just cut countries off from the rest of the world indefinitely,” said Dr Raghib Ali of the University of Cambridge. “Excluding some people from certain countries because of the vaccine they received is totally inconsistent because we know that these approved vaccines are extremely protective. ”
Nsofor said he and his wife were still deciding where to take their summer vacation and leaned towards Singapore or East Africa.
“I didn’t know there were so many layers in vaccine inequity,” he said.
Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Angela Charlton in Paris and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
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