Travel restrictions are disrupting international trade and holding back recovery from the trillions of dollars the pandemic has added to world debt. To stem the damage and open up the world safely, we need a global vaccine certification system — an undertaking that will require the political leadership that only the Group of 20 can provide.
Admirable attempts to reopen borders have been made, but these have often been piecemeal, unilateral and transitory. Frequent changes to entry protocols have left passengers confused, while mandatory quarantines and multiple tests are prohibitively expensive and impractical, and not necessarily science driven. This is not a sustainable model, given that we will be living alongside Covid for some time.
Consider the evidence. Restrictions have delivered a hammer blow to global tourism — responsible for one in 10 jobs around the world — and risk causing wider and deeper damage. Businesses are unable or reluctant to send employees to other countries to meet customers, stifling innovation and straining relations.
And on Monday, the European Union removed the United States from its list of countries whose residents are deemed safe to enter the union’s 27 nations without quarantine and testing requirements, though it will be up to each member state whether to follow the restrictions.
The solution lies in the global certification of effective vaccines for travel. We know vaccines can significantly reduce the likelihood of infection and transmission, and it is a testament to global science that we have developed vaccines and administered some 5.2 billion doses so quickly. But without recognition of these vaccines across borders and the ability of people to prove their vaccinated status, this progress will not result in easier travel.
This could be accomplished by a seamless, global, data-driven system to recognize vaccines for travel, track their changing effectiveness, and certify a person’s vaccination and possible booster status.
This requires two things: an interoperable, cross-border data system so countries can exchange information, and a global coordinated program in which countries recognize vaccines for travel that have not been approved by their domestic regulatory systems. This would allow individuals who have received effective vaccines to travel to any country that recognizes that vaccine for travel purposes.
The Good Health Pass Collaborative, a consortium of digital health credentials providers, has developed a set of technical standards for digital vaccine and health passes. These should be adopted by the global community. The QR code on these health passes should have the capability to work across the world. We believe the G20 can become the gatekeepers of these standards to assure they work globally while protecting people’s privacy.
This system is one side of the solution. Its success will be reduced if an effective vaccine is not recognized in the country where the health pass holder wants to travel. That is why the distinction between domestic regulatory approval of a vaccine and its recognition for cross-border travel is critical.
To complement this system, expanded global genomic surveillance systems run by international groups such as the World Health Organization and other entities would help track which vaccines work against which variants so that countries could update the vaccines they recognize based on the latest data.
A country shouldn’t be expected to approve every vaccine. This is unrealistic given the robust approval procedures of the regulatory bodies of many nations. Instead, there should be a central list of vaccines that countries recognize for travel purpose, based on data and real-world evidence of effectiveness.
A good starting point for such a list would be the seven vaccines approved by the W.H.O. The list has to be dynamic and data driven, because not all vaccines may work against all variants, and nations should have the ability to make science-driven decisions on allowing potential variant-susceptible individuals to cross their borders.
An overreliance on domestically approved vaccines will leave the world grounded. Of the vaccines recognized by the W.H.O. as effective, just four are approved in Britain and the European Union and three are conditionally or fully approved in the United States. There are some countries where people’s vaccinated status is not being recognized because of the vaccine received.
For example, Washington has not said whether it accepts Britain’s proof of Covid-19 vaccination, so the government there recommends that its citizens traveling to the United States follow entry rules for unvaccinated people. Since certain vaccines approved in Britain, such as AstraZeneca’s, are not approved in the United States yet, there is also confusion among British travelers about whether it is accepted in the United States.
We must act quickly. By the end of the year, at least a seventh of the world’s population could have received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Without recognition of this vaccine by the United States for travel purposes, it could mean that over a billion vaccinated people would not be eligible to enter the country without quarantine.
Of course, travel policy is a sovereign matter and each country or electorate must make up its own mind about what level of risk it is willing to take, but there needs to at least be the option to recognize the reduced risks of those travelers who are fully vaccinated.
We acknowledge all the challenges in taking effective action at the G20 level, but there’s an opportunity coming just next week as the G20 health ministers meet in Italy. The G20 should plan to put a system in place before the holiday travel season this winter. Establishing a consistent and workable travel policy is essential for a safe and expeditious global economic recovery.
Tony Blair is the executive chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. John Bell is a professor of medicine at the University of Oxford. David B. Agus is the chief executive of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at the University of Southern California. Their organizations are the founding partners of the Global Health Security Consortium.
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