European Union Proposes A Travel Certificate System, While Region Pushes Back Against UK Over Vaccine Exports
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announcing the Digital Green Certificate proposal at a press conference on Wednesday.

The European Commission has released a proposal establishing a framework for a “Digital Green Certificate”, clearing the way for a vaccine certificate system to be set up by the summer. 

The proposal comes as many European countries are witnessing a third wave of infections and as the region’s vaccination campaign is lagging from vaccine shortages and the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a key vaccine in the inoculation effort – with only 10% of EU residents vaccinated. 

European Commission and WHO Encourage Trust in AstraZeneca Vaccine

President of the European Commission, von der Leyen, announced the moves  in a press conference – whrere she also stressed her confidence in the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, echoing the same message sent by the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization. 

“I trust AstraZeneca, I trust the vaccines,” said Von der Leyen. 

WHO’s expert safety team called the investigation into the thromboembolic events “good practice,” but stressed that there is currently no causal link to the vaccine. 

“At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue,” said WHO in a statement released on Wednesday.   

The EMA is expected to publish its assessment of the vaccine on Thursday in a statement that Von der Leyen said would “clarify the situation.” 

Certificate System to Support Free Movement and Revitalize Economy

The Digital Green Certificate is designed to facilitate the safe and free movement of citizens in the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will provide proof that an individual has been vaccinated against COVID-19, has received a negative test, or has recovered from COVID-19. 

Mock-ups of a paper and digital vaccination certificate, proposed by the European Commission on Tuesday.

“The Digital Green Certificate offers an EU-wide solution to ensure that EU citizens benefit from a harmonised digital tool to support free movement in the EU,” said Vera Jourová, Vice President for Values and Transparency at the European Commission, in a press release

“Our key objectives are to offer an easy to use, non-discriminatory and secure tool that fully respects data protection,” Jourová added. 

Several EU member states that rely heavily on tourism, including Greece, Spain, and Italy, were strong proponents of a common approach to such a system to revitalize air travel and ease the pressure on economies. Airlines and the travel industry also put pressure on EU politicians to implement a standardised travel solution. 

“We aim to help member states reinstate the freedom of movement in a safe, responsible and trusted manner,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, at a press conference on Wednesday. 

Certificate System Won’t Be Discriminatory, Say Commission Officials

The proposed system will benefit everyone travelling within the EU and won’t discriminate against those who have not been vaccinated, emphasised the Commission in a statement. This comes after several countries and experts raised concerns about the ethics of such a system. 

National authorities in EU member states will be responsible for issuing the certificate, meaning it could be issued by hospitals, test centres, or health authorities. The certificate will include the individuals’ name, date of birth, date of issuance, information about the vaccine, test or recovery status, and a unique identifier. 

A QR code will be used to authenticate the certificate, ensure the security of data, and protect against falsification. According to the Commission, no personal data will be retained by the visited countries. 

The stages of the Digital Green Certificate System in practice.

The rights of individuals falling within the three categories on the Digital Green Certificate will be equal and member states will be required to waive the same public health restrictions, such as testing or quarantine, for all travellers with a certificate. 

“The Digital Green Certificate will not be a pre-condition to free movement and it will not discriminate in any way,” said Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice. “A common EU-approach will not only help us gradually restore free movement within the EU and avoid fragmentation. It is also a chance to influence global standards and lead by example based on our European values like data protection.”

Free movement is a fundamental right for EU citizens and the certificate system will “make it easier to exercise that right,” said the Commission. Those without a certificate will be able to travel, but may be subject to testing or quarantine. 

Commission officials have made a point to avoid the term “passport,” instead describing the Digital Green Certificate as a common system to help EU member states coordinate travel measures.

The certificate will be available to EU citizens and their family members, non-EU nationals who reside in the EU, and visitors who have the right to travel to other member states. It will be valid in all EU member states and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland will be able to decide whether or not to introduce it. 

There will be no difference in the treatment of citizens and eligible non-EU citizens, said the Commission. 

The European Commission will develop a gateway for all certificates to be verified across the EU, assist member states in the technical implementation of the certificates, and support member states to develop software to scan and check the QR codes.

Vaccines Included Under Certificate System

The COVID-19 vaccines that have received EU marketing authorization will automatically be recognised on the certificate, but member states will be able to accept vaccine certificates issued for other vaccines, specifically ones that have been granted authorization by a member state’s regulatory agency or ones that have received WHO Emergency Use Listing. 

This is particularly an issue for the countries – Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic – that have rolled out the Russian Sputnik V and Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines before they have been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). 

It is unclear if the proposed system will automatically be updated with the vaccines currently under rolling review by the EMA, including the Sputnik V vaccine, once they receive authorization.

The proposed system leaves the door open for updates based on new scientific evidence on the efficacy of vaccines in halting the transmission of SARS-CoV2 and the duration of protective immunity from prior infection. 

Currently the framework sets the maximum validity period of the certificate of recovery from a previous COVID-19 infection at 180 days. 

Next Step for Approval of Proposal

The Commission’s proposal is subject to approval by the majority of member states and the European Parliament before it can be implemented across the region. The proposal will be discussed at the next European summit, which is set to take place in late March. 

Member states will have to implement the trust framework, which defines the rules, protocols, and standards to ensure that the certificates are interoperable, verifiable, and trusted, in order to take a common approach to the certificates. 

The system could be implemented within three months EU officials said in February during the virtual summit of the European Council.

The Digital Green Certificate system will be temporary, “it will be suspended once the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the end of the COVID-19 international health emergency,” said the Commission. 

EU Threatens to Halt Vaccine Exports to UK, If Vaccine Exports to the Continent Aren’t Reciprocated

Meanwhile, in vaccine rollout news, the EC President threatened to curb the export of COVID-19 vaccines produced in the EU to countries that have higher vaccination rates, referring to the United Kingdom and the United States, both of which have been restrictive in their export of vaccines manufactured locally. 

“We want reliable deliveries of vaccines, we want to see increases in the contracts, we want to see reciprocity and proportionality in exports,” said Von der Leyen at a press conference. “We are ready to use whatever tool we need to deliver on that.”

“This is about making sure that Europe gets its fair share,” she added. 

The EU has exported 41 million doses of vaccines manufactured in the region to some 33 countries over the past six weeks – including 9.1 million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to Britain and one million to the US – and is the largest funder of the WHO co-sponsored COVAX global vacccine facility, which aims to share vaccines more equitably with low- and middle-income countries too.

But the bloc of 27 member states has not received its “fair share” of vaccines in return, particularly from the UK, Von der Leyen stressed, referring to the AstraZenec/Oxford vaccine produced there. 

“It is hard to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the EU are going to other countries that are also producing vaccines, but hardly anything is coming back,” said Von der Leyen. 

The EU is “still waiting for doses to come from the UK,” produced by AstraZeneca, said Von der Leyen. 

According to the Commission, two factories manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK are mentioned in the EU’s contract with the pharma company as sites for the production of vaccines designated for the EU.

The irony is that at the same time that the EU is clamouring for the UK to permit more AstraZeneca exports, some 17 countries have suspended its use due to about 30 reports of blood clots and abnormal bleeding in recipients of the jab. 

EU is “Not Ruling Out Anything” to Secure Vaccines

“We need to ensure that there is ‘reciprocity’ and ‘proportionality,’” said Von der Leyen. “If the situation does not change, we will have to reflect on how to make export to vaccine-producing countries dependent on their level of openness.”

When asked about potentially seizing production or waiving intellectual property rights to secure vaccine supplies for member states, von der Leyen said that “all options are on the table.”

“We are in the crisis of the century and I’m not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible,” Von der Leyen said.

Her comments contrasted sharply with the EU’s longstanding opposition to an IP waiver on COVID-19 tools and technologies at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The EU has joined several high income countries in blocking the proposal, arguing that WTO rules are flexible enough to address the vaccine access issues faced by low- and middle-income countries.

The export restrictions could also extend to countries “who have higher vaccination rates” than the EU, which could apply to Israel, Chile, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Serbia, Qatar, Turkey, and Morocco.

UK Defends its Use of the “UK-Funded” Vaccine

In a rebuke to Von der Leyen’s comments, Matt Hancock, the British Health Minister, said that the UK had the legal right to prioritize doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with government support, to its citizens. The government has repeatedly prioritised UK citizens but continues to say it has not imposed an export ban on doses. 

“We legally signed a contract for delivery of the first 100 million doses here for people in the UK, as you would expect, both to ensure that people in the UK can get their jab and also because this is a UK-funded, UK-delivered vaccine,” Hancock said at a press conference on Wednesday. 

Matt Hancock, the UK’s Health Minister, at a news briefing on Wednesday.

“It remains the case that we expect the EU to stand by its commitment,” said a spokesperson for the UK government. “Putting in place restrictions endangers global efforts to fight the virus.”

“We’ve, all of us, including with our European friends, been saying throughout the pandemic that you’d be wrong to curtail or interfere with lawfully-contracted supply,” Dominic Raab, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, said on Wednesday. “I’m surprised we’re having this conversation. It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.”

The decision to fulfill the UK’s vaccine needs before exporting to the EU coincides with an announcement on Wednesday that there will be a significant reduction in the amount of vaccines available in the UK from 29 March. 

This is due to “reductions in national inbound vaccines supply,” said a letter from the National Health Service, conveying information it received from the government’s vaccines task force. 

The EU has faced vaccine supply issues for several months now. AstraZeneca has underproduced and underdelivered doses to the EU, which has slowed the speed of the regional vaccination campaign. Initially the pharma company was expecting to deliver 90 million doses in the first quarter, but this has dropped to 30 million doses.

Despite the struggles the EU has faced with their rollout of vaccines, Von der Leyen said that she remains optimistic that the target of having 70% of the adult population fully vaccinated by the end of the summer could still be reached. 

Image Credits: Twitter – Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission, European Commission, Sky News.

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