Covax vaccines.

Covax vaccines.

| Amanuel Sileshi | AFP

Africa corners United Kingdom on vaccine certification irony

The African Union is raising a storm over new rules the United Kingdom will impose on travellers starting next month, with the body arguing that they could brand the entire continent as unvaccinated.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) on Tuesday demanded an urgent meeting with the UK’s scientific community so they can explain why people vaccinated in Africa will have to follow the rules for the unvaccinated.

Africa CDC demanded mutual recognition of vaccine certificates as a way out of the confusion that it argues can slow or reverse the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UK government announced earlier this month that it will abandon its ‘traffic light system’ from October 4 and progressively start admitting travellers based on vaccine status rather than Covid-19 test results.

But while scrapping that system will end the categorising of countries as either ‘red’ (too risky), amber (moderate risk) and green (safe to come), the UK drew angry reactions for declaring certificates from the entire African continent unrecognised.

It also labelled similar documents from India, one of Africa’s main suppliers of vaccines under the Covax facility, as not yet recognised. Countries in Asia and Latin America are also excluded from recognition.

Different recognitions

On Tuesday, Africa CDC challenged the UK to explain how the same vaccines issued in different regions were receiving different recognitions, even when supplied by the same entity.

The agency raised “deep concern [on] the planned changes to international travel rules in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, communicated by the Government of the UK, which will be enforced starting at 4am on Monday, 4th October 2021.”

The UK rules say travellers whose vaccination is not recognised, including but not limited to the AU member states, will have to take additional measures, resulting in a significant financial and social burden.

They must take Covid-9 tests before arrival, self-isolate for 10 days and take two other tests while isolating. These extra measures include two additional tests (pre-departure and “day 8 test” and quarantine for 10 days. However, if they test negative earlier than 10 days, they may be released from isolation.

The UK has not provided any further explanation and the rationale for these new rules, Africa CDC said on Tuesday.

For discriminating against people who have received vaccines through the Covax programme of the World Health Organisation, Africa CDC argued, the UK was raising doubts about its own intention to encourage people to take vaccines.

The organisation said the lack of recognition will make it harder for authorities to convince people to jet jabs. The UK is one of the largest supporters of the Covax programme, donating over $700 million (Sh71 billion) directly for the purchase and distribution of the doses.

London also committed to send about 80 million vaccine doses through Covax, which constitute almost half of the Covid-19 vaccines supplied to Africa to date.

Deepen vaccines hesitancy

“We are deeply concerned that policies and rules such as this carry a risk of deepening vaccines hesitancy across Africa and create distrust in the community,” the AU said.

“Given the severe consequences of the rules, the Africa CDC therefore urge the UK government to a) reconsider their decision and b) with the African Union to discuss how to ensure mutual recognition of vaccines provided through its donations.”

The AU believes that this will help avoid further restrictions on the movement of the African population, “which is already impacted by the limited access to vaccines”.

By Tuesday, Africa CDC lamented that just about four percent of the African population have received a Covid-19 jab, against the global trend where four in 10 people have been jabbed at least once.

It was unclear whether AU member states backed the collective call for mutual certificate recognition. But officials on the continent have separately called out the UK’s red listing.

“I must say I am very shocked that South Africa continues to but on the UK’s red list, given the progress that we have made in combating the pandemic. We regard this keeping us on the red list, really, as a political punishment of some kind that we do not understand at all,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister for international relations and cooperation, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday.

“It appears that the UK is relying on scientific information, they say. We are not sure from which source but we have now arranged that our scientists, the advisory committee as well as our department of health will now meet with the United Kingdom.”

African leaders have used the recent 76th Session of the UN General Assembly to call for fairness and equity on vaccine distribution.

Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta, Samia Suluhu of Tanzania and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa argued in their speeches that the world would be unsafe if some people continue to hog vaccines. Ramaphosa, who recently protested the UK’s refusal to remove his country from the red list said eight in 10 doses have been hogged by the West.

Certificates

In a past interview, UK officials told the Nation that vaccines it donated to Kenya are recognised, only that the two sides have to discuss what the certificates should look like.

London says their red-listing decisions are usually based on ‘scientific research and data’ but could not explain how India, a country that has been grappling with a surge in Covid-19 infections more than any African country, as well as with new variants like Delta and Delta Plus, had been removed from the list if it is true that the decisions are science-based. India’s vaccine certificates were yet to be recognised in the UK, however.

“Decisions to introduce or remove countries from the red list are in direct response to the latest scientific and medical data showing an increased risk to UK public health and community transmission,” a spokesperson from the British High Commission in Nairobi explained.

“As with all our coronavirus measures, we keep the red list under constant review and our priority remains to protect the health of the UK public.”

Last week, UK diplomats across Africa issued local statements seeking to clarify vaccine certificate issues. But they ended up angering officials more by not indicating timelines on recognition.

The UK has, in the alternative, dangled partnerships and vaccine donations, as well as pledging to collaborate in research and genomic sequencing, as it promised with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).

Manufacture local doses

Meanwhile, AU says the biggest solution should lie in enabling the continent to manufacture local doses, by being permitted to use copyrighted technology.

“American taxpayers, European taxpayers, financed some of this intellectual property (IP) and it should be for the common good,” argued Strive Masiyiwa, the AU special envoy on Covid-19, in a virtual press conference last week.

“It is not wrong that we say there should be waivers, it was for the common good.

“So, we ask for this IP to be made available because it was a great miracle to have these vaccines, now let this miracle be available to all mankind. To be fair, vaccine manufacturers were given restrictions, they are not selling to us, which is why we will now have to solve this by manufacturing our own.”

Africa and other developing regions had fronted a motion at the World Trade Organisation, seeking waivers on an intellectual properties treaty known as TRIPS, to be allowed licence under emergency terms to use the technology from the West.

The motion, moved by South Africa and India, flopped thrice as Western countries refused to endorse it. WTO rules of decision-making require consensus, rather than a secret ballot, meaning that a single no vote invalidates a decision.

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