The Canadian government is talking to international partners about the development of COVID-19 vaccination certificate systems that might one day help facilitate travel across international borders but bureaucrats in Ottawa, as well as some politicians, wonder if such a system is the best way to proceed.
“We are working on it on a scientific basis and we will have more to announce when we have it to announce,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday. “Right now we’re focussed on getting through this pandemic and being prepared to come roaring back once we’re through it.”
The lack of enthusiasm in federal government circles to develop vaccination certificates is matched by the World Health Organization which argued in a paper it published in February that “national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.”
Trudeau himself, along with multiple political and bureaucratic staff interviewed for this story, believe there is little appetite among voters to relax border restrictions any time soon. Indeed, Ontario Premier Doug Ford last week called on the Trudeau government to tighten the border and Trudeau responded by promising to work with Ontario to suspend visits to that province by any international students.
The government in the United Kingdom is set to start issuing so-called vaccine passports to its nationals as early as this month.
There are no timelines set for Canada to develop such a document. Officials in several Canadian government departments are contributing to early discussions around a vaccination certificate, though it appears the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is the lead department on the file for now.
“We are actively looking at how to support the development of a way to confirm vaccination at borders,” agency president Iain Stewart told MPs on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health Friday.
One of the first hurdles to clear for any vaccine certificate system is the current state of vaccine science. For example, as Canada’s chief public officer of health Dr. Theresa Tam said earlier this week, scientists have not conclusively established that people who are vaccinated will no longer be contagious and carry the disease. Until that issue is settled, a vaccination certificate would be less useful.
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“There’s not enough data on some of the vaccines at the moment,” Tam said. “The data is looking pretty good towards the direction that vaccines probably do protect against a reduction in transmission — the extent to which they do that is an evolving scientific study, but I do think that they can reduce transmission. I think it’s looking that way. But we don’t have the data for all vaccines.”
There is also an issue around booster shots and how long each different vaccine provides protection to travellers. That, too, is very much a hot topic among scientists and among the vaccine manufacturers themselves. And, as Tam told MPs on the health committee Friday, it is still unclear if the formulation for boosters will be the same formulation as the original dose. Until scientists come to an agreement on those issues, it would make it difficult to know how long any vaccination certificate would be valid for, or when a holder of such a certificate would need it renewed.
The deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, told reporters this week that another significant question for the Canadian government to resolve when it comes to vaccination certificates is which vaccines it will recognize on such a document. Canada has four approved vaccines but has not approved, for example, the Sputnik vaccine developed by Russia. Similarly, the United States has not approved the AstraZeneca vaccine which has already gone into the arms of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.
Then there are ethical and privacy concerns associated with the federal government reaching into provincial health databases on a regular basis to retrieve the individual vaccine records of Canadians so that those records could be included on a federal travel document.
Canada and the provinces are developing a database system dubbed “Vaccine Connect” which could be part of the infrastructure to support a federal vaccination certificate, Stewart said Friday.
Finally, multiple sources in the various government departments tasked with contributing to the vaccine certificate discussion wonder if a vaccine certificate system, should one even be found to work, would be the best system to regulate international travellers. Those individuals say a more likely system to protect Canadians from contagious travellers would be a robust rapid-testing system at border points and reliance on national vaccination programs, along with different rules for different regions and countries.
“I think it’s an interplay between getting our vaccines up and getting the rates of vaccinations up really high so that we can potentially have people who come in who’ve been vaccinated, posing not just less of a risk to themselves, but to each other as well,” Tam said. “So that’s another concept we’re trying to work for.”
Trudeau noted that many Canadians will already be familiar with the concept of showing proof of vaccinations for travel to some countries. Some African and South American countries, for example, prohibit entry to anyone who cannot produce a yellow card called the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) as proof of vaccination against yellow fever.
“As was the case pre-pandemic, certificates of vaccination are a part of international travel to certain regions and are naturally to be expected when it comes to this pandemic and the coronavirus,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday. “How we actually roll that out in alignment with partners and allies around the world is something that we’re working on right now to coordinate.”
But despite several requests to several federal departments, no official was able to provide many details about any discussions Canada is having with other international partners, when those discussions have occurred or will next occur, or who is participating in them.
Stewart, the president of PHAC, did tell MPs on the Commons’ health committee Friday that Canada’s representative at the World Health Organization was monitoring discussions there about establishing standards for a vaccine certificate.
That said, sources in the Canadian aviation and tourism industry have taken note of an interview European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen gave last week to The New York Times in which she indicated that EU member countries would be prepared to accept American tourists who could show proof of vaccination. Those Canadian industry sources say that revelation should spur Ottawa and the provinces to develop a protocol Canada could use to accept inbound travellers and one which Canadians could use to travel abroad.