Will ‘vaccine passport’ for international travel hurt Nigeria?

When people take COVID-19 vaccines, they are issued with cards having a QR Code that serve as proof of their inoculation against the coronavirus. This may become a requirement for international travel in the near future. Increasingly, countries are considering adopting the much-debated ‘vaccine passport’ as a means of international and local access. A number of European nations, the US, China and other countries are considering different options for its implementation.

In Israel, for instance, an authenticated proof of vaccination or a certificate of recovery from coronavirus can secure a tourist or local exclusive access into Israel’s attraction sites, cultural events, sporting venues, swimming pools and gyms. The state, with 95 percent of its 9 million population vaccinated, has come up with ‘Green Pass’, a document with QR code which establishments can scan to confirm vaccination status.

Vaccination as a possible new currency of international travel for these countries comes as an intersection of health security and economic revival. Nigeria has its eyes on the same goal but a back-to-normal air travel for Nigeria might not be as positive as seen in Israel or other places.

No doubt, it will further open up air travel as Nigeria also plans to issue vaccination cards stamped with QR code identifiable globally, integrated in the vaccination process that the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency has kicked off.

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“The card that will be given is from the printing and minting company of Nigeria to avoid duplication. At the point of vaccination, a form will be filled and the card will be issued with a seal on it, which can be scanned. That will automatically store the information on the cloud,” an official of the NPHCDA told BusinessDay.

“Anytime the person wants a form of certification anywhere, all they need to do is to scan that code, which brings out information about the person’s vaccination,” the official said.

However, for a country of 206 million with 3.92 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine currently available for only 1.92 percent of the population, the gains of vaccine passport will elude many Nigerians, especially if adopted by countries such as the UK where Nigerians travel the most for health tourism, education, business, among other things, analysts say.

Although more doses of vaccines are expected in the coming weeks from various sources including the global initiative COVAX, African Union, India, Russia, MTN, Coalition Against COVID-19, (CACOVID), they are not likely to deliver Nigeria at least 288.5 million doses required to achieve herd immunity.

For the economy, an analysis by FBN Quest Capital indicates Nigeria risks losing the short-term gains recorded in the last two quarters due to global restriction on international travel.

For much of the period, Nigerians made limited use of their foreign exchange allowance for education, health and business travel related spending, reducing the pressure of consistent outflow on the services account – a challenge considered one of the main weaknesses of Nigeria’s balance of payments.

Data from the Central Bank of Nigeria reflect a decline in Nigeria’s net services deficit to $1.82 billion in the third quarter of 2020 from $2.5 billion in the second quarter, and from $8.5 billion in the third quarter of 2019.

Travel debits plunged to $0.13 billion in the third quarter of 2020 compared with 2019’s $3.44 billion. Education accounted for $0.10 billion against $1.51 billion drawn out in 2019 third quarter, while health spending was nowhere near $0.64bn recorded in 2019.

“Once we have started to live normally and foreign exchange is again freely available, Nigerians will again draw on the FX allowances and the deficit will return to previous levels. The latest improvement is therefore short-term. The net outflow averaged $9.68 billion per quarter in 2019,” said the report.

Overall, countries such as Nigeria, disadvantaged in capacity to produce its own vaccines or independently fund procurement will be set for a hit by the time wealthier countries achieve the herd-immunity being targeted.

But it might be avoided if the government doesn’t delay too long to license private sector players to procure vaccines from legitimate sources and free-up access to more people, Femi Olugbile, a top health consultant said.

Vaccine sourcing, distribution and administration is currently centralised under the control of the federal government, just as testing for COVID-19 was initially centralised .

There are already concerns that Nigeria, like most governments in Africa will only be able to cover healthcare workers, the elderly and vulnerable, leaving the majority of those outside that group to scramble for vaccination.

Also, critics of the idea of vaccine passport predict it could drive misallocation of scarce vaccines as those with less risk from COVID-19 – the young and healthy – will rush to get vaccinated ahead of those most at risk.

“You can understand the basis for centralising as they want to be sure that the vaccines are genuine. But the vaccine numbers that governments are likely to get in Africa are not likely to be enough for those who want to be vaccinated,” Olugbile said.

“Suppose anyone who wants to travel for holidays might require to be vaccinated and it is not a priority consideration for the limited numbers in his own country? I think we are just limiting ourselves. It’s the same thing that happened with the testing. In fact there are more resources for proper testing outside the government.”

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the moment disapproves use of proof of vaccination in international travel as a condition for departure or entry, citing that clarity on efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission has not been attained.

The global regulatory body says questions on vaccines efficacy in preventing disease and limiting transmission, including for variants of the disease; duration of protection offered by vaccination; timing of booster doses or whether vaccination offers protection against asymptomatic infection remains unanswered.

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