Vaccination without discrimination: Equitable access now, for equal opportunities later
The Economic Times, August 17, 2021

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Advaiyot Sharma

In the first half of this year, trade restrictions on vaccine raw materials and their consequent impact on vaccine production dominated news headlines. Now, the second half of the year is poised to see vaccination status of individuals and its associated consequences — vaccine certificates/passports — as a crucial factor in the discussions on the revival of trade, travel and tourism. This comes with its own set of challenges. Given the scale of the pandemic and a global vaccination programme that is expected to stretch for a couple of years, India should formulate a coherent position on issues surrounding vaccine certificates, considering all the legal, policy and ethical aspects involved.

As many parts of the world continue to grapple with surges in novel coronavirus infections fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, vaccines have emerged as a path towards a gradual pandemic exit. This in spite of the debate about the effectiveness of the vaccines on the new variants.

However, the vaccine production, distribution and administration exercise globally has so far been highly uneven and iniquitous. These inequities in global vaccine distribution and supply will have far-reaching effects. Gradually, they would come to be reflected in terms of lack of opportunities for people in those parts of the world which are witnessing slower pace of vaccination due to access constraints.

The stark differences between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated will soon play out in cross-border contexts, in terms of limiting opportunities in aspects of services trade, such as travel, tourism and education, and broader access to avenues of mobility and employment.
In this context, India needs to pursue a carefully crafted strategy on vaccine certificates/passports. While India has opposed the use of such vaccine certificates in specific cases (including at the G-7 and in case of the EU’s Green Pass), a detailed policy position clearly laying out India’s views on the use of vaccine certificates and addressing the myriad related concerns is the need of the hour.

India is one of the biggest global players both in the manufacture and supply of vaccines, as well as in its stakes in global services trade. While efforts towards securing global recognition for all the vaccines being currently deployed in India has been an important focus area in the past months, efforts must also be directed to fully understand the implications of vaccine certificates as potential non-tariff barriers to the flow of services trade. India has rightly sought to initiate discussions on these matters. In a recent statement at a World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting, India’s Ambassador to the WTO cautioned against “new forms of trade barriers in the name of selective use of vaccine certificates”.

It is important to note that the issues raised by vaccine certificates are multi-dimensional, and they touch upon various aspects of the existing international legal framework. These include global trade rules, health regulations, and the international civil aviation framework, besides being additionally regulated by specific regional arrangements, such as in the EU. Further, many private technology companies and commercial airlines have introduced their own vaccine pass technology systems. These use medical test data and vaccination history of individual passengers as parameters to ascertain eligibility for country-specific travel. Such systems raise additional questions about establishing the authenticity of the medical data channeled through these apps, and about concerns related to security and privacy of such user data.

In the just concluded Monsoon Session of Parliament, in response to multiple questions raised by MPs on vaccine passports and foreign travel related issues, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has stated that there were no plans presently underway to introduce a vaccine passport system in India. It also informed the Parliament that India was actively participating in multilateral discussions on these matters at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the nodal body for international air transport diplomacy.

Given the range of issues, and particularly the health and economic stakes involved, India’s stance on vaccine certificates should adopt a whole-of-government approach. This would require a coordinated position jointly taken after consultations between the key line ministries and greater synergy in diplomacy and negotiations at the various fora (WTO, WHO, ICAO etc.). The outcome of such an exercise should be a clear position on vaccine certificates, detailing India’s stand on the compatibility of vaccine certificates with WTO law, International Health Regulations (IHR) etc., as well as other policy and ethical aspects. This could then shape India’s stance on vaccine certificates both at multilateral negotiation fora and in any potential reciprocal agreements with others.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.
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