By Ifeanyi Nsofor
Covishield is the brand name used for the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine manufactured in India’s Serum Institute, administered to millions of people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. It’s not on the list of approved vaccines for the European Union — although the AstraZeneca version made in the United Kingdom and at European sites is.
I’m fully vaccinated. I want to travel to Europe. And fully vaccinated visitors are welcome.
But I can’t get in.
That’s because the vaccine I received is not on Europe’s list of four approved vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca, but only the version manufactured in the United Kingdom or Europe and known as Vaxzevria. The version that’s much more widely used around the world, which is made by the Serum Institute of India and branded as Covishield, is not on the list of vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency. And that’s the vaccine I got — along with hundreds of millions of other people, mostly in lower- and middle-income countries.
This exclusion is spelled out in the rules for the COVID Digital Green Pass, being launched on July 1 to help ease travel within Europe for vaccinated travelers. Covishield is not included.
In January, I wrote about being invisible in the global COVID-19 vaccine campaign. I was disillusioned and did not know when I would receive my first dose of the vaccine because richer Western nations were buying up most of available vaccines. At the same period, only 25 doses of any COVID-19 vaccine had been administered across Africa with a population of more than 1.2 billion.
However, through the COVAX vaccine distribution program, Nigeria received its first batch of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines on March 2. Three weeks later, on March 23, I received my first dose. I was elated.
Two months later, on May 25, I completed my COVID-19 vaccination with dose #2. I felt on top of the world. I felt I was ready to travel to any country because I was protected by the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the wake of the Green Pass announcement, there is growing uproar about the exclusion of Covishield.
The Serum Institute, which is the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world, has shared this response to the Green Pass rules:
I realise that a lot of Indians who have taken COVISHIELD are facing issues with travel to the E.U., I assure everyone, I have taken this up at the highest levels and hope to resolve this matter soon, both with regulators and at a diplomatic level with countries.
But in the meantime, my situation has not changed. Once again, I feel invisible.
COVID-19 vaccine nationalism has taken different dimensions, all to the detriment of people from poorer countries. COVAX, the vaccine distribution program co-led by the World Health Organization, has distributed more than 89 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. More than 90% of which are manufactured in India, so none of these individuals will be able to travel to Europe any time soon either.
Why would a vaccine using the same recipe from the same pharmaceutical firm not be accorded similar respect simply because it is manufactured in India rather than in a rich European country?
This news comes at a time when Africa is still in dire need of vaccines. The COVAX facility will only provide enough for just 20% of Africans. Right now, fewer than 2% of Africans have so far been vaccinated. With the exception of the vaccine donations promised by President Biden, African leaders often come up against brick walls as they scramble for ways to buy more vaccines.
Those brick walls are part of a deliberate global architecture of unfairness, said Strive Masiyiwa (a Zimbabwean billionaire and African Union special envoy to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team), speaking at the Milken Institute’s “Future of Health Summit” to explore global coordination and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. It’s another example of vaccine nationalism, described as a catastrophic moral failure.by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization.
The ramifications of the inequity of the COVID Digital Green Pass are far-reaching. As cities begin to reopen globally, many Africans and others from lower and middle income countries are planning on traveling to Europe to attend conferences, visit relatives, resume school or just have a vacation. These individuals may have booked their air tickets, made hotel reservations, paid school fees. They have received their full doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and were confident they were protected from COVID-19 infection. They followed the vaccination guidelines approved by the World Health Organization. They should be celebrated.
Last week, I spoke on decolonizing global health at a virtual meeting, organized by the London International Development Centre and four United Kingdom universities. After a successful meeting, I began to think that such invitations to speak would soon become in-person and I may have to travel. But if I cannot, will I miss out on these opportunities and in-person connections?
And what are my options? Do I and other recipients of the Serum Institute vaccine now have to take two new doses of other COVID-19 vaccines, or the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine approved by the European Union?
Is it even safe for someone to take four doses of COVID-19 vaccines? Is it right?
My Igbo tribe in Nigeria would describe this latest COVID-19 vaccine inequity and denial of entry to fully vaccinated Africans, Indians and others like myself as pushing someone and then dictating where the person falls.
I am tired, weary, pained, disappointed and let down by the consistent inequity people like me have faced during this COVID-19 pandemic. This can no longer be allowed to go on. It must stop.
The European Union must revise this new guideline. They must view everyone who has been fully vaccinated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as the same. As equals. Period!
Ifeanyi Nsofor is the director of policy and advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch and is a senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute.
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