Can Europe Make It?

The dangerous illusions of an EU ‘vaccine passport’

Is the push for a vaccine certificate driven by an economic desire to boost travel and tourism rather than the safety of all Europeans?

Luiza Bialasiewicz Alberto Alemanno
9 March 2021, 5.06pm
Israel’s ‘green passport’, issued to people who are fully vaccinated
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Ilia Yefimovich/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Amid growing pressure from some European Union states and industry associations to ease the current coronavirus travel restrictions, the idea of granting special privileges to those who have been vaccinated is gaining momentum.

The European Commission intends to propose an EU-wide vaccination certificate – the so-called ‘Digital Green Pass’ – that should “gradually enable [Europeans] to move safely in the European Union or abroad – for work or tourism”. EU member states remain divided over the issue, with tourist-destination countries such as Austria, Greece, Italy and Spain pushing the proposal, but with Belgium, France and the Netherlands (where the subject has become a hot topic in the lead-up to the national elections) expressing considerable doubts.

In light of the state of the current vaccination campaign across most of Europe, the Commission’s proposal is premature at best, and highly perilous and profoundly discriminatory at worst.

As we argue here, the introduction of an EU Digital Green Pass is based on inherently flawed logic, not only from a scientific perspective, but also from a legal-territorial and ethical point of view. Paradoxically, rather than uniting Europe by easing travel restrictions, a ‘vaccination passport’ would simply create new borders: across the continent, across communities and even across families, divided between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ bodies.

Faulty science behind vaccine passports

First, let us unpack the faulty scientific assumptions behind the proposal. The certificate relies on the assumption that those who have been vaccinated no longer carry the virus.

COVID-19 vaccines – like all vaccines – prevent disease, not infection

However, current scientific evidence suggests that while the approved COVID-19 vaccines stop disease, they do not entirely stop transmission, as shown by the multiple cases of vaccinated health care workers in Italy (and elsewhere) testing positive for the virus. COVID-19 vaccines – like all vaccines – prevent disease, not infection.

The vaccines approved for use in the EU are effective at preventing disease and thus the symptoms of COVID-19. Reducing the symptoms of the disease reduces the potential rate of transmission by those who have been vaccinated, but that does not make them fully ‘safe’ for non-vaccinated others. This is why epidemiologists insist that until a large enough percentage of the population is vaccinated, all other containment measures, such as wearing masks and social distancing, must continue to be observed.

‘Vaccine deserts’

The highly variable roll-out of vaccination programmes across the EU is also a problem, making some nationals far more likely to be vaccinated than others. Significant differences also exist within countries, with more difficult access to vaccines for people outside major urban areas, and divergences in the capacity of different regions to organise the administration of vaccines.

While most EU states have done their best to ensure that ‘vaccine deserts’ of the sort seen in the US do not develop, the territorial differences in access, even among priority groups, are still considerable. Deprived areas poorly served by health care services (whether urban or rural) are often more likely to also have much higher rates of vaccine hesitancy, as has been noted in the UK.

Priority categories: who are the frontline workers?

Such differences are multiplied when we examine how different member states select priority groups for vaccination. After the highest-risk categories such as medical personnel and the aged, each state is free to decide subsequent categories. Indeed, the definition of ‘essential’ or ‘frontline’ worker is not the same across the EU.

For example, while Italian and Austrian school teachers and university lecturers are already being called up for vaccination, those in the Netherlands will have to wait for several more months.

School teachers and university lecturers in Italy and Austria are being vaccinated months before those in the Netherlands

The question of vaccine access is even more vexed for those millions within Europe whose formal status does not correspond to their current place of residence. This includes both intra-EU migrant and incompletely documented or partially regular non-EU immigrants. All these individuals are currently excluded from access to vaccination, which will likely drive creation of a vaccine black market.

In the absence of equitable public access, private demand for the vaccine is set to grow. Witness vaccination packages to the UAE and India, while Lufthansa recently announced that it is considering offering ‘vaccine flights’ to Moscow.

Travel sector associations such as IATA are also teaming up with tech giants Microsoft and Oracle to create new digital health passes, as noted by The Economist in its recent report on ‘The Future of Travel’, which predicted that “health information will become as vital to international travel as a passport is today”.

A public or private health good?

The ability to ‘jump the queue’ by paying a large amount of money for a vaccine raises another fundamental legal question: shouldn’t vaccines be considered a public health good, and regulated as such?

Creating a system that incentivises private access (which is what an EU-wide vaccine certificate would do) is highly problematic: both from a legal/ethical point of view, but also from an epidemiological one. As Wolfgang Münchau noted in his piece on ‘vaccine elitism’ (commenting on the unwillingness of some German citizens to have the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine), vaccines are a textbook public good: “your protection does not arise from receiving a better vaccine than your neighbours. It arises from all your neighbours receiving a vaccine, so that they don’t infect you in the first place.”

‘Your protection does not arise from receiving a better vaccine than your neighbours’

There are other legal and regulatory issues. According to preliminary discussions, non- EU travellers vaccinated with Chinese or Russian vaccines, which are not approved by the European Medicines Agency, would not qualify for the Digital Green Pass. This would automatically exclude citizens of Turkey or Serbia where these are the principal vaccines in use, but potentially also people from EU states such as Hungary, which has purchased both the Chinese Sinopharm and Russian Sputnik V vaccines.

A security ‘fetish’

The key question is, what is the rationale behind the Green Pass? If it is to prove the safety of individual travellers, then current scientific evidence urges caution. Or is it an economic rationale that prioritises travel and tourism at the expense of the safety of other Europeans? It seems more a performance of security than a credible policy option; a fetish that allows EU politicians to offer their citizens a physically tangible illusion of control.

Rather than investing in a fetish, the EU should work even more closely with member states to boost vaccine production capacity and ensure equitable distribution (forbidding national stockpiling and ‘vaccine nationalism’), while also establishing EU-wide categories of priority groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profoundly unequal effects across the European Union. The EU and its member states should focus on addressing these impacts, rather than contributing to creating additional layers of inequality through an exclusionary sorting mechanism, which is what the vaccine certificate would amount to. The Digital Green Pass might seem like a good solution to governing pandemic risk – but it is based on profiling that has less to do with actual viral risk than simply with unequal access to vaccine-privilege.

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