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A World Health Organization (WHO) panel has said that covid-19 ‘vaccine passports’ should not be required to enter or exit a country even as several countries are either considering or mandating such documents for international travel.

“We have long been advising against using covid vaccination passports for international travel due to non-equitable availability and need for robust evidence for prevention of virus transmission post-vaccination. We have issued the latest interim guidance to all member states," WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan told Mint.

The updated WHO interim guidance on “technical considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to international travel in the context of covid-19" said as vaccination rollout progresses in most countries, and evidence grows about the performance of vaccines against the development of severe covid disease and death and—to a “lesser extent"—protection against infection and reduction of transmission, and about performance against variants of concern, national authorities in countries of destination may consider implementing an individualized approach to the application of public health measures.

“In the context of global travel, the WHO recommends that member states should not require proof of covid vaccination or recovery as a mandatory condition for entry to or exit from a country," it said.

“They may consider exempting from SARS-CoV-2 testing and/or quarantine requirements to incoming travellers who are fully vaccinated, meaning they have received the last recommended dose of a vaccine against covid listed by WHO for emergency use or approved by a stringent regulatory authority at least two weeks prior to travelling," the WHO said. It added that the travellers having proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection confirmed by RT-PCR received within the past six months and are no longer infectious as per WHO’s criteria for releasing covid patients from isolation may also be exempted.

Nonetheless, data from vaccination studies show some vaccinated persons may still become infected and develop the disease, which in most instances is mild. Hence, travellers who are vaccinated are unlikely to develop severe covid and, consequently, they do not impose increased strain on health systems at the countries of destination. However, their ability to infect others and the risk they pose for further transmission remain unknown, the WHO said.

The apex global public health agency also recommended that national authorities may use other certificates of covid health status, some in digital format, as recommended by regional or global intergovernmental bodies. Where digital certificates of covid status are used, interoperable solutions should be sought to allow for cross-border verification. Currently, India requires travellers from overseas destinations to produce an RT-PCR test done within 72 hours of travel. Some states also have mandatory quarantine rules. India has introduced a digital vaccination certificate, which is being linked to passports for travelling. R.S. Sharma, chief executive officer of National Health Authority and chairman of the Co-Win platform, has said vaccination certificates have been aligned with Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources—a WHO standard. The digital vaccination certificate is India’s vaccine passport, he said.

There are countries, such as Belize, Croatia, Ecuador, Estonia, Georgia, Guatemala, Iceland, Montenegro, Poland, Seychelles and Slovenia that permit travellers to enter and skip quarantine if they possess full certification vaccination against covid. Some states in India such as Punjab, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand have banned the entry of people from other states without a negative covid test result or a vaccine certificate.

The WHO panel said covid testing remains crucial for countries to control the pandemic, and international travellers should not be considered by default as suspected covid-19 cases or as a priority group for testing. “In resource-limited contexts, avoid diverting testing resources from settings where testing can have a higher public health impact," the WHO guidance said.

“We are following the guidance from the WHO and looking at the best arrangements that we can make during the pandemic, in line with the WHO guidance," said a senior health ministry official.

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