Around five million Britons who have had even one dose of Covishield — the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India — have been barred from entering Europe under the current COVID rules governing travel between countries during the pandemic.
The same countries are allowing entry to Britons who have received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in the UK or Europe.
The discrimination against the India-made vaccines is due to the fact that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) does not recognize Covishield, the version of the AstraZeneca candidate made by the Serum Institute of India (SII), while it accepts the Vaxzevria version made in the UK and Europe.
Batches from India
The UK’s National Health Service has so far administered 78.3 million doses of COVID vaccines — either Pfizer’s or AstraZeneca’s — across the country, fully vaccinating almost 50% of the population.
Though the majority of the AstraZeneca vaccines administered so far are locally made, the UK Department of Health has refused to say exactly how many doses of the India-made jab have been used. But, five million were imported from India in early 2021.
In fact, the British government had placed an order with SII for 10 million doses, but had only received half the order before the Narendra Modi government placed a ban on vaccine exports in April-end to contain the deadly second wave of COVID raging in India.
While travelling to most European countries is currently not allowed, the vaccine rule comes as a bolt from the blue for most Britons. The country is looking forward to July 19, when the COVID restrictions that have been in place for more than seven months will come to an end.
Coupled with the onset of summer and a long school break, many people, particularly families, are hoping to get away for their holidays and Europe is a popular destination because of its proximity and promise of a warm, sunny weather.
Boris Johnson slams move
Downing Street hit out at the European ban, saying the vaccine is identical wherever it is made. “I see no reason at all why the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)-approved vaccines should not be recognized as part of the vaccine passports, and I am very confident that it will not prove to be a problem,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson, trying to allay the fears of holidaymakers.
Vaccine passports have become a must for travel because of the various and frequently changing restrictions during the pandemic. The new EU Digital COVID Certificate allows only those fully vaccinated to move through Europe without having to quarantine or undergo further testing. However, it only approves the vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made in Europe.
“As we continue to cautiously reopen international travel, the NHS COVID Pass will be a key service that allows people to demonstrate their COVID vaccination status,” said a statement from the UK Department of Health. “All AstraZeneca doses used in the UK will appear under the European name — Vaxzevria — on the NHS app, even if they are made in India.”
It added that Covishield will be identified only by the batch numbers which also appear on the app. So far, it looks like batches 4120Z001, 4120Z002 and 4120Z003 were manufactured by SII.
UK government experts have been quick to point out that the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine is the same irrespective of where it is made. Reports suggest that the only reason why Covishield has not been approved by the EMA is that SII has not sought a licence for it in Europe yet.
‘Two-tier’ vaccine system
The EU ruling has caused outrage in Asia and Africa, with some accusing it of a colonial mindset. “It is outrageous and speaks of the non-inclusive nature of the entire scheme. How do you exclude the majority of the world’s population from Europe on the basis of where their vaccine was manufactured?” Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
“What the world is saying to us with actions like this is: we have superior vaccines that provide better protection because essentially your lives and health status don’t matter as much as ours…creates a two-tier vaccine system for a two-tier world,” added Alakija.
Covishield has been authorised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and forms the backbone of the Covax distribution scheme that provides the vaccine to middle- and low-income countries. SII, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has a deal with Covax to deliver 1.1 billion doses of either AstraZeneca or Novavax shots.
The issue is only likely to be resolved if and when the EMA formally authorises Covishield in Europe.