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Getting away from the science? Reasons behind mixed COVID-19 vaccine restrictions unclear

Vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines sit empty on the counter at the Junction Chemist Pharmacy, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

As travelling slowly returns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies and countries are upholding their own policies concerning what they consider “fully vaccinated” and therefore exempt from restrictions.

Germany outlines that it does not accept a mix of two different mRNA vaccines as fully vaccinated, meaning travellers must present a negative COVID-19 test to enter, while some cruises do not accept a mix of an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine with an mRNA vaccine as fully vaccinated, following the guidance of the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC).

Read more: Thinking of travelling? Here’s where mixed COVID-19 vaccines aren’t accepted

The policy decisions have left one scientist dumbfounded as to why they were implemented, given that all of the COVID-19 vaccines do the same thing — introduce our bodies to a protein that helps develop antibodies to fight the virus.

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“[The policy] doesn’t make any sense,” said UBC infectious diseases professor Dr. Horacio Bach. “I have no idea what’s behind that.”

Bach does recognize that some vaccines, such as Chinese or Russian-made ones, may not be accepted due to a lack of transparent data, but doesn’t feel the same caution should be applied to the vaccines many Western countries have approved.

UBC Public Health Assistant Professor Dr. Devon Greyson said that the cautious policies may be a result of less data on the effects of mixed vaccines, given that COVID-19 vaccines were initially tested individually whereas mixed vaccines have had to rely on more “real life” data.

Click to play video: 'Travellers experiencing issues with mix and match vaccines' Travellers experiencing issues with mix and match vaccines
Travellers experiencing issues with mix and match vaccines – Aug 19, 2021

However, they feel that policies will change over time as uncertainty lowers.

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“Guidelines will change and there still is quite a bit of uncertainty,” they said. “When there’s uncertainty, different jurisdictions, different countries, and also private companies will act in different ways under that uncertainty.”

For example, France previously did not accept a mix of two mRNA vaccines as fully vaccinated but has since changed its policy.

“All indications so far that I’ve seen are that the mixed vaccine schedules that we’re using here in Canada are likely to go very good protection against COVID-19,” Greyson said.

Read more: 3rd COVID-19 vaccine doses for international travel approved in Saskatchewan

Getting away from the science?

Given the speed at which the world has had to adjust to living with COVID-19 and develop policies around it, the question can be asked whether some policies are “getting away from the science.”

Both Greyson and Bach point to lax mask policies as not following the science — that masks can help prevent COVID-19 spread.

Greyson highlighted how certain states in the U.S. have created laws against mask mandates and prohibiting local jurisdictions from implementing mask policies as “getting away from the science” and instead have embraced partisan politics.

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“We in public health prefer when [policies] don’t become partisan,” they said. “Public health is for everybody and should be for everybody.”
Click to play video: 'Mixed-vaccine recipients confused about travel rules' Mixed-vaccine recipients confused about travel rules
Mixed-vaccine recipients confused about travel rules – Aug 5, 2021

When public health policies become partisan, it makes them more of an identity issue than a scientific issue, Greyson explained.

“That’s not going to be good for [people] or their communities.”

On the other hand, Greyson said that whether some policies may be considered over-protective is more of a question of a culture’s “risk-threshold.”

“When it comes to any public health behavior, there will be different cultural norms around it, whether it’s wearing a mask or vaccines or wearing a seatbelt,” they said.

“Some communities are very familiar with this and very comfortable with it, while other communities may resist it and they feel like it’s more of an infringement on their personal freedom.”

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For example, wearing masks is less common in Western countries than it is in Japan, and so the former has seen more resistance to those policies.

“There’s the science, and then there’s also the cultural factors that you weigh when you’re making policy,” they said.

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