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WHO cautions against vaccine passports for international travel

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WATCH: WHO says 'vaccine passports' for travel has ethical considerations due to inequality – Mar 8, 2021

A senior World Health Organization official said that so-called “vaccine passports” for COVID-19 should not be used for international travel because of numerous concerns, including ethical considerations that coronavirus vaccines are not easily available globally.

At a press briefing on Monday, WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said there are “real practical and ethical considerations” for countries considering using vaccine certification as a condition for travel, adding the U.N. health agency advises against it for now.

“Quite simply, vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis,” Ryan said. WHO has previously noted that it’s still unknown how long immunity lasts from the numerous licensed COVID-19 vaccines and that data are still being collected.

Read more: ‘Reliable scientific evidence’ needed to consider COVID-19 vaccine passports: PHAC

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Ryan also noted the strategy might be unfair to people who cannot be vaccinated for certain reasons and that requiring vaccine passports might allow “inequity and unfairness (to) be further branded into the system.”

“Being vaccinated is not something everyone has equal access to,” he said.

As vaccination campaigns ramp up in many parts of the world, so-called “vaccine passports” are gaining traction as governments look for ways to smooth travel, entertainment and other social gatherings in a post-pandemic world.

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But the strategy raises the prospect of further dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, experts warn, creating ethical and logistical issues that have alarmed decision-makers around the world.

“The core human rights principle is equity and nondiscrimination,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

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“There’s a huge moral crisis in equity globally because in high income countries like Israel or the United States or the EU countries, we’re likely to get to herd immunity by the end of this year,” he said. “But for many low-income countries, most people won’t be vaccinated for many years. Do we really want to give priority to people who already have so many privileges?”

Read more: EU to propose ‘digital green pass’ as proof a person has been vaccinated

Digital vaccine certification strategies are already in place in Israel and Bahrain, and have recently been implemented in China.

The British government said it is studying the possibility of issuing some kind of “COVID status certification” that could be used by employers and organizers of large events as it prepares to ease lockdown restrictions this year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the policy could cause problems.

“We can’t be discriminatory against people who, for whatever reason, can’t have the vaccine,” he said.

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In Canada, the concept is being mulled over by the federal government.

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Officials told Global News that they would need “reliable scientific evidence” before considering making its use in Canada official.

Ultimately, it is the provinces and territories that are keeping track of immunization records. In the past, proof-of-vaccination ideas have come up in Ontario and Alberta.

“The Government of Canada is aware that some jurisdictions are considering granting privileges to vaccinated people through a certification process,” Health Canada wrote in an email to Global News on March 7. “Any similar consideration in the Canadian context would have to be based on reliable scientific evidence.”

— with files from the Associated Press and Global News’ Hannah Jackson and David Lao 

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