Expert urges Canada to ‘follow the science’ on COVID-19 vaccine passports

WATCH: Fully vaccinated Canadians can enter country without quarantine starting July 5, Bill Blair announces.

After one theatre in the U.S. temporarily disallowed those who had received Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines from attending a show, an expert is warning that this could just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential issues with vaccine passports.

On Saturday, Jujamcyn Theatres, the company behind a Broadway production featuring Bruce Springsteen reversed course, saying audience members who received the AstraZeneca shot would be welcome in its audience.

The theatre had previously said those who wanted to see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ would need proof of vaccination by a shot approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The shot from AstaZeneca has not yet received the green-light from the agency.

It has, however, been approved for use in Canada, and more than 2.92 million doses have been delivered to the provinces and territories.

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Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, said the ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ incident is a “classic example” of what vaccine passports do.

“They’re divisive, they’re bureaucratic, and they’re often not evidence based,” he said. “If you ask yourself from a scientific point of view, are people vaccinated with AstraZeneca a higher risk than the other people within that audience? Absolutely not.”

What has the Canadian government said?

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Trudeau said the federal government is working on “two tracks” in terms of proof of vaccinations for Canadians who want to travel.

The initial phase, he said, will use the ArriveCan app, an app that allows travellers to digitally provide contact and quarantine information.

“(The) initial phase will be to have people upload image of proof of vaccination so border agents can verify on their return to Canada,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister said more details will be made available in the coming weeks.

According to Trudeau, the feds are also working with provinces to “establish a national certification of vaccination standard,” which could be ready in the fall.

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It’s not clear, however, what proof of vaccination Canada will accept from those seeking entry into the country.

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Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Canada’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the federal government is “working with allies, obviously, in the European Union, the United States and others to find the most appropriate way to recognize proof of vaccination for citizens who want to travel internationally.”

‘Follow the science’

Bowman said developing vaccine passports where some vaccines are accepted and others aren’t could potentially “exacerbate already very difficult geopolitical tensions.”

He pointed to the COVID-19 vaccines being distributed in China and Russia, adding that if they are not accepted globally, that could cause significant global issues.

“And, you know, we have enough trouble geopolitically as it is with both the Russian Federation and China,” he said. “We don’t need to create any more tension.”

Bowman also said the idea of vaccine passports could “put people into a panic about what kind of vaccine they’re going to get” and encourage “vaccine shopping.”

It could also create inequality issues, he explained.

Bowman said what could be perceived is that lower income countries will be sent “b-list or non-preferred vaccines,” like AstraZeneca.

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“So (they would be) acceptable for low-income countries (but) not acceptable for wealthy countries like Canada,” he said. “etc etc…”

“That’s a very negative and destructive message.”

Ultimately, what Canada should do, Bowman said, is “follow the science.”
“What we need to define is: What are the acceptable thresholds of any vaccine? Does the person have it or do they not,” he said, as opposed to only accepting the vaccines that are approved in Canada.
Bowman added, though, that there has been a lack of “clear global leadership” when it comes to vaccine passports.

“There’s no country that’s really stepped up globally to try and coordinate things,” he said. “The WHO’s done I suppose what they can, but they’re fairly overwhelmed on this front, (and) we don’t have clear guidance.”

Canada-U.S. border

For now, the federal government is continuing to urge Canadians not to travel unless absolutely necessary.

What’s more, on Friday, Canada’s public safety minister announced the Canada-U.S. border would remain closed to all non-essential travellers until July 21.

“Our number one priority as we fight #COVID19 is keeping Canadians safe,” Blair wrote in a tweet.

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“As we have said, the government is planning measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, Permanent Residents and for others who are currently permitted to enter Canada and will provide further details on Monday, June 21,” he tweeted.

Bowman said when the border re-opens, U.S. officials could allow Canadian travellers into the country, but only those who have received a vaccine other than AstraZeneca.

“I do not believe they’ll do that,” he said. “But we don’t know that either.”

Late last month, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency was “taking a very close look” at the possibility of vaccine passports as the coronavirus pandemic eases and Americans begin to travel overseas.

Mayorkas added, though, that a guiding principle during the pandemic has been “making sure that any passport that we provide for vaccinations is accessible to all and that no one is disenfranchised.”

-With files from Global News’ Katie Dangerfield, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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