Canadians will be permitted entry to European Union countries restriction-free, EU members agreed Wednesday.
The decision comes following earlier concerns that individuals who received the COVID-19 vaccine, AstraZeneca Covishield, could be barred from travelling to Europe. The European Medicine Agency —the agency in charge of the evaluation and supervision of medicinal products in the EU — has not approved the Covishield brand of the vaccine, which over 270,000 Canadians received at least one dose of during vaccine rollout.
The update to guidelines came in a meeting with ambassadors from the European Union’s 27 member states, EU diplomats told Reuters news agency. It means Canadians will likely be exempt from those vaccine restrictions. During the last round of additions to the EU’s list of epidemiologically safe countries, travellers from those countries were permitted entry to the EU regardless of their vaccination status.
Member states may still impose restrictions, like the requirement for a negative coronavirus test or self-isolation.
Fourteen countries had already been on the EU’s list of safe third countries, including the United States, Australia, Israel, Japan and New Zealand, among others.
Along with Canada, 10 other countries have also been granted permission for non-essential travel to the EU, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Jordan, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, according to the website schengenvisainfo.com. The change is expected to come into effect by the end of the week. The countries on the list have recorded a low number of COVID-19 cases recently.
Before the change, several EU member states required Canadian travellers to have received a vaccine approved by the European Medicine Agency. Germany began allowing entry to Canadians June 25, so long as they were immunized with a combination of EMA-approved vaccines. The same rule had been in place in France for Canadians hoping to visit the country for non-essential travel since June 9.
Several EU member states and non-EU countries will begin using a new vaccine passport system on July 1. The EU Digital COVID Certificate, or Green Pass, recognizes one brand of the AstraZeneca jab, the Vaxzveria. The Covishield, identical to the Vaxzveria and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, is not approved by the EMA.
The implementation of the EU’s vaccine passport certificate raised questions about whether non-member states would be required to participate in the vaccine passport system, potentially excluding millions of people across the world from travelling to EU countries.
University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman said there’s no reason people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca brand produced in India shouldn’t be allowed into the EU versus those who received a biologically identical AstraZeneca vaccine brand produced elsewhere.
“Decisions will be made that divide people unfairly, that are primarily bureaucratic rather than evidence-based science,” Bowman said.
Chief public health officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam stressed the importance of international discussions in resuming travel at a June 17 press conference.
“Every country has authorized different vaccines … they’re all making different policy decisions at the moment,” Tam said. “The important thing is to engage in international discussions … to come to a point where we can accept each other’s data … and look at a path forward that makes life easier and that travellers are supported if they have been vaccinated.”
The Serum Institute of India’s chief executive officer Adar Poonawalla said at the India Global Forum Wednesday the manufacturer has applied for EMA approval through AstraZeneca, and expects European drug regulators to approve the Covishield in upcoming weeks, meaning it could be added to the list of recognized shots for the EU’s vaccine passport, according to Bloomberg News.
The Covishield was widely produced for uptake in India and distributed in lower-income countries across Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.
“The AstraZeneca could be only the tip of the iceberg,” Bowman said, noting countries have rolled out a variety of vaccines to millions, like the Russian Sputnik V and China-made Sinovac and Sinopharm. “It introduces some significant injustice, without good scientific reason.”
Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said AstraZeneca vaccines are not less effective than others, although they may have different side-effect profiles.
“It’s not fair that resource-poor parts of the world that have done their research with vaccines that seem to be effective and work, get excluded from travel,” Banerji said. “It creates barriers and it discriminates against those countries.”
Bowman said he looked through his forms Tuesday to check what brand of vaccine had been administered to him, to find his jabs were simply labelled AstraZeneca. While he knows there’s no difference in the vaccines, there could be customs officials that ask him to specify, he said, adding there should be more clarity from the government around AstraZeneca brands.
Helen Miller, 63, received her first dose of AstraZeneca Covishield on March 12. Like many Canadians, she’s unsure what version of AstraZeneca she received for her second shot, on May 27. At the time, there was a push to accelerate second appointments, as nearly 45,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were set to expire, until Health Canada extended the expiry date from May 31 to July 1.
Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) had not yet issued its recommendation on the efficacy of mixing vaccines, and with no choice but the AstraZeneca, and doctors saying to “get whatever you can get first,” Miller scheduled a second dose of the same jab.
“I’m disappointed,” Miller said. “It never occurred to anybody that there’s been sort of prestige, or labels attached … There’s a stigma that needs to be addressed.”
She added that people around her have discussed getting a third shot, this time Pfizer so their vaccine information no longer lists AstraZeneca.
“I don’t regret protecting myself and my family, but I do regret how it’s being handled,” Miller said. “Is it up to us to justify our AstraZeneca vaccine is just as good? If it is as good as the other choices then the government should support us. If it doesn’t provide us equal protection then they should offer us an alternative.”
In mid-June, Canadians who were jabbed with AstraZeneca were informed they wouldn’t be allowed seats to “Springsteen on Broadway,” because the vaccine is not authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The theatre hosting the show later reversed its decision, stating any guests vaccinated with jabs authorized by the World Health Organization would be welcome.
Both Bowman and Banerji said there’s a need for global standards on approved vaccinations, suggesting the World Health Organization could create one.
Read more about: