As the debate rages over a vaccination passport against COVID, vaccination against yellow fever is mandatory to travel to many countries in Africa and Latin America. So why not against the coronavirus? Why is it not that easy?
Travelers heading to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are familiar with this little yellow notebook. Certified by the World Health Organization (WHO), the document attesting to vaccination against yellow fever is mandatory to enter 21 countries considered to be at risk for this tropical disease. Transmitted by mosquitoes, the yellow fever virus causes tens of thousands of deaths each year, according to the WHO. But there has not been an epidemic in the northern hemisphere since the beginning of the 20th century.
This yellow notebook proves that the establishment of an international passport against COVID is possible. Following the example of China or the Seychelles, more and more countries are tempted to take the lead, by unilaterally enacting the obligation to be vaccinated to enter their territory. The European Commission is due to present its draft vaccine passport valid within the Union on Wednesday.
Vaccination Passport: An Asset For Eradicating Diseases
The WHO “international certificate of vaccination” is also an essential key for nationals of countries where yellow fever is endemic and who wish to travel to the rest of the world. Created in 1969, this certificate was made necessary by the explosion in air traffic. Shortening journeys has indeed increased the risk of virus imports. In the past, ships could be quarantined if a passenger fell ill during the long voyage.
In its first version, the WHO diary related to other diseases: plague, cholera and smallpox. He played a role in the eradication of this last disease, proclaimed defeated in 1980. Today, yellow fever is the only disease against which it is compulsory to be vaccinated to travel to certain countries. Saudi Arabia also requires visitors to be immunized against meningitis, but only during the pilgrimage to Mecca.
This yellow fever vaccination obligation is the result of an agreement between the Member States of the WHO: the International Health Regulations, last revised in 2005, after the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which from China. It is this regulation that obliges each state to announce new epidemics, which Beijing was slow to do more than a year ago when it came to SARS-CoV-2.
In short, the legal basis for a vaccination passport for travel against Covid-19 exists, as like international support. If the member countries of the WHO agree, “it would suffice to add in the yellow notebook a section for vaccines against COVID”, imagines Gilles Eperon, assistant doctor of the tropical and humanitarian medicine department at the Geneva University Hospitals. Before the COVID pandemic and border closures, the service received more than 12,000 travelers per year. “More than a third of them received the vaccine against yellow fever,” continues the doctor, whose service is now busy issuing travelers with test certificates against COVID.
Reluctance From WHO
Yellow fever and COVID, same fight? “It’s not that simple, however tempers Gilles Eperon. There are only three vaccines against yellow fever. Since the time they have been in use, they have proven to be effective and they are very similar. ” The picture is very different when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. About twenty vaccines have been launched or are in the testing phase, only four of which have been approved by the WHO. From one vaccine to another, the technologies are very different, hence the difficulty of a universal vaccine passport.
But, above all, hindsight is still lacking to measure the effect of vaccines on the transmission of the coronavirus. Injections are a good way for people who are immune to get sick. But are they still carriers of the coronavirus and can they transmit it? These uncertainties are the main reason why the WHO is skeptical about vaccine passport projects, which it considers premature.
The WHO also points to “the limited global supply of vaccines” so as not to recommend the introduction of such passports. “Vaccinating travelers should not be done to the detriment of risk categories,” notes the WHO. “If access to vaccines is unequal, the system will be even more inequitable and unfair,” warned Mike Ryan, the emergency manager at the WHO, at a press conference on March 8. According to its latest tally on Friday, the WHO estimated that three quarters of the vaccines administered against COVID in the world were administered in just ten countries.
However, the Geneva-based institution is not closing the door on an international passport against COVID, when the time comes, once doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines against transmission of the virus have been dispelled and when more countries have been removed. We are far from it. In the meantime, the WHO has launched a reflection for a digital vaccine passport and the governments are moving forward in dispersed order.