WHO cautions against use of vaccine passports for international travel

Thursday April 29 2021
Vaccine passport.

Health agency says use of vaccine passports for international travel would promote inequality. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

By Elizabeth Merab

The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised countries against demanding proof that travellers have vaccinated against coronavirus.

At present, proof of immunisation against diseases such as yellow fever is required at some international borders in accordance with the International Health Regulations. 

The WHO said although there is evidence vaccination breaks the chain of transmission, the current inequity in distribution makes such requirements unfair and unethical.

“Do not require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry, given the limited (although growing) evidence about the performance of vaccines in reducing transmission and the persistent inequity in the global vaccine distribution,” said a statement summarising the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee meeting held April 15.

The results of the committee meeting were only published on Monday.

The group's recommendation comes as numerous countries are mulling launching vaccine passports for travellers but also for other activities including sports.


“States Parties are strongly encouraged to acknowledge the potential for requirements of proof of vaccination to deepen inequities and promote differential freedom of movement,” said the committee.

Currently, most countries in Africa have vaccinated less than one per cent (About 15 million according to Africa CDC data) of their populations while Europe and US are past 50 per cent.

The idea of  introducing Covid-19 vaccination passports has been garnering attention across the world, as the passports have been touted as a way for people who are vaccinated to go places more easily, whether that be traveling or to a restaurant.

Promote inequity 

As enticing as the promise of vaccine passports sounds, the idea has been met with resistance as experts argue that restricting people’s movements based on whether they have received a Covid-19 vaccine will increase inequities that have already been revealed or exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Even without Covid-19, there are many challenges for Africans to get visas for countries in North America and Europe. I now worry that this need for vaccination will be an additional barrier,” Prof Madhukar Pai, chair of the Canada Research in Epidemiology and Global Health said in a recent interview with Nation.

The certificate or credential could either be on a smartphone app or printed. The proof of vaccination potentially could allow travellers to avoid restrictions such as quarantining upon arrival. Domestically, passports could be used for access to events or businesses.

However, Covid-19 vaccine passports could be used, in addition to a traditional passport, to travel to countries needing proof of vaccination before granting entry.

Vaccine passports are being used in various ways by some countries. China is issuing passports for citizens travelling out of the country, and in Israel, people are issued “green passes” allowing them to go to businesses like restaurants and gyms.

In Kenya, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala said that citizens travelling out of the country from next year will be required to have a vaccine passport. Mr Balala last week said the government is in consultations with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to create the vaccine passport. 

The Ministry of Health in January introduced an online system (Africa CDC Trusted Traveller, TT, initiative) designed to authenticate and verify travellers' Covid-19 certificates. The Ministry said the system will also be used to generate Covid-19 vaccination certificates.

The African Union has already rolled out its “Trusted Travel Platform”, which automates cross-border verification of health certificates, whether for testing or vaccines.

But there are a lot of variables that passport makers will need to account for before introducing such certificates. For instance, given the many vaccines being developed, it is yet to be determined if the certificate will only cover certain vaccines.