The vaccine most widely used in Africa and India isn’t part of Europe’s vaccine passport

Not good enough, sorry.
Not good enough, sorry.
Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas
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Millions of fully vaccinated people in India and Africa could face challenges traveling to Europe under the EU’s new vaccine passport scheme, scheduled to take effect on July 1. That’s despite the fact that they’ll have taken a vaccine that, on the face of it, is already authorized in the EU, as well as by the UK and the World Health Organization.

The problem? The EU is making a distinction between one brand of the AstraZeneca jab, named Vaxzevria, and its identical, but Indian-made version Covishield. The latter, manufactured under license by India’s Serum Institute, is not one of the vaccines listed for the EU’s new digital travel pass.

India has administered nearly 300 million doses of Covishield, while the global, multi-agency Covax program that serves many African countries managed to get hold of about 30 million jabs before supply issues led to restrictions. The move could also exclude travelers from other countries that make local versions of the AstraZeneca vaccine, such as South Korea.

Serum is applying for emergency authorization, BBC News reports. But unless the EU changes its rules, a lot of people could face friction at its borders even when they begin to relax restrictions for non-EU arrivals. More friction than usual, anyway.

What is the EU Covid-19 vaccine passport?

From July 1, all EU residents can use paper or digital documentation—called the EU Digital COVID Certificate—to enter the bloc, or travel without restrictions inside its borders. The certificate proves that the traveler has been vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative test result, or recovered from the disease. It is free of charge, available in both English and all EU languages, and has a QR code.

It only certifies four vaccines, all of which have been authorized by the European Medicines Agency. They are:

  • Comirnaty (BioNTech/Pfizer)
  • Spikevax (Moderna)
  • Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca)
  • Janssen (Johnson & Johnson)

No other vaccines are eligible yet, although several, including Russia’s Sputnik V, are under review.

Why isn’t Covishield part of the EU program?

According to the European Medicine Agency (EMA), the exclusion hinges on the fact that Covishield hasn’t obtained authorization to be marketed in Europeonly four vaccines have that. Given that Covishield’s focus has been on supplying India and other countries unable to obtain the other, more expensive, and hard-to-store shots, there’s no reason it would have sought this authorization previously.

Covishield is the biologically identical, but Indian-manufactured version of Vaxzevria, the European brand name for the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, each brand must supply its own efficacy data, and crucially, apply for its own authorization with the relevant authorities. The Serum Institute has not yet published complete trial results.

“I have taken this up at the highest levels and hope to resolve this matter soon,” tweeted Serum’s CEO Adar Poonawalla, who only recently returned to India after a two-month hiatus in the UK. “Both with regulators and at a diplomatic level with countries.”

According to its website, the EMA has no current market authorization requests. It is not clear, however, that Poonawalla has the clout, even at “the highest levels,” to rush the EU into authorizing his vaccine so quickly.