WHO’s Emergencies Expert Group Re-Asserts Stance Against COVID ‘Vaccine Passports’ for International Travel
Novak Djokovic holding the 2019 Wimbledon men’s trophy – his departure from Australia was not as glorious

A World Health Organization Emergencies Expert Committee has once again re-asserted a recommendation to abolish vaccine requirements for international travel – going well against the grain of current trends – particularly in light of the brouhaha seen over Sunday’s deportation of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic  from Australia.

The WHO expert group, made of some 19 representatives from different WHO regions and another dozen advisors, also recommended that all restrictions on  international travel between countries be removed –  or at least eased – saying that “they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress” of various WHO member states.

While that latter recommendation is something that countries are already implementing in practice – the one regarding vaccine passports has received far less  support among WHO’s own member states so far – many of which have strengthened vaccine mandates for travel, work and leisure activities over past months, including moves by France on Sunday – stimulating more protests by anti-vax groups.

Tennis Star Case Highlights Clashing Approaches

The most vivid illustration of the starkly clashing approaches of the world health body and many of its leading donor governments was Australia’s deportation on Sunday of the vaccine-hesitant Djokovic, after he entered the country to compete in the Australia Open on the basis of his recent infection and recovery from COVID-19, only to be deported by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke after a nine-day long legal battle.

Now, it appears that the 20-time Grand Slam title holder may also be barred from attending the upcoming French Open tennis tournament, after France  tightened its travel rules to bar unvaccinated arrivals – and the Sports Ministry said Monday there would be no exemptions.

The current WHO recommendation, issued by the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee Wednesday evening, states bluntly in bold typeface that it recommends member states:

“Do NOT require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for international travel as the only pathway or condition permitting international travel.”

But rather than concern about celebrities’ international access, the WHO expert group argues that such limitations are unfair, “given limited global access and inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.” It elaborates those concerns further in an interim paper on “considerations regarding proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travellers.”

In addition, WHO also recommended a re-evaluation of testing and quarantine measures related to international travel, something the Agency has never supported wholeheartedly either.

The advice states: “State Parties should consider a risk-based approach to the facilitation of international travel by lifting or modifying measures, such as testing and/or quarantine requirements, when appropriate, in accordance with the WHO guidance.”

WHO experts also recommend lifting of travel bans on other countries

As for even more drastic travel bans, WHO’s recommendation is perhaps more in step with the current trends – that have seen countries lifting the bans after seeing that they failed to keep the new Omicron variant at bay.

In the WHO statement Wednesday, the Expert Committee recommended that countries, “Lift or ease international traffic bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced by States Parties.

The Omicron wave has highlighted how such travel bans can boomerang.  Travel bans in November and December hit particularly hard and visibly against the South Africa and its neighbors – the very countries that first identified the variant – and announced it transparently to the world.  The result was global pummeling of their tourism-dependent economies and hamstrung travelers desperately trying to visit family for holidays from different corners of the globe.  Some countries imposed continent-wide bans against Africans before they were applied to Europe and the United States – even cases quickly appeared all over the world, prompting leaders like South African President Cyrus Ramaphosa to refer to “health apartheid” with respect to the travel rules, while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called it “travel apartheid” outright.

The WHO advice underlines those points stating that: “The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time.”

That advice, however, also reiterates the Agency’s ambivalence over a range of other travel-related preventative measures as well, noting that “masking, testing, isolation/quarantine, and vaccination” should be based on “risk assessments, and avoid placing the financial burden on international travellers in accordance with Article 40 of the IHR.” It refers to the WHO advice for international traffic in relation to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant for further guidance.

WHO uneasy with vaccine mandates generally

Katherine O’Brien, Director WHO Vaccines, Immunizations and Biologicals

While WHO has been adamant that every country in the world needs to get to a 70% vaccine coverage goal by mid-2022 – it has been equally reticent about using vaccine mandates domestic as well as international – as a carrot or stick to reach such ambitious vaccine goals.

In early December, WHO’s European Regional Director, Dr Hans Kluge declared that vaccine mandates even in countries with universal access to vaccines should only be an “absolute last resort, and only applicable when all other feasible options to improve vaccination uptake have been exhausted.”

Last week, in response to the Djokovic controversy, WHO’s Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald saying that “Free and full access to safe and effective vaccines is the absolute precondition before a mandate is made and that is a grounding principle,” she said.

“It’s also a grounding reason why there is not a requirement from WHO, [there is not] a recommendation around any requirement for crossing international borders, although the status of somebody’s vaccination may be considered with respect to other conditions that may be imposed on people through the course of their travel.”

Image Credits: Wikipedia , AFP/Issouf Sanogo.

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