Covishield: EU hits back in Indian vaccine row as UK plays down travel fears

Millions of doses exported under Covax scheme do not permit travel to Europe

Boxes of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative arrive at the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia Monday, March 15, 2021. The first shipment of 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine will target the country's frontline workers, elderly and people with chronic health conditions, according to Somalia's Ministry of Health. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
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EU diplomats are defending the bloc against a vaccine outcry from Africa as vaccines made in India and exported to developing countries do not grant the right to travel to Europe.

The UK is playing down fears that people given Indian-made Covid-19 vaccines in Britain will be denied entry to the EU.

Millions of doses of the Covishield vaccine, the Indian-made version of the AstraZeneca drug, are being shipped to poorer countries under the Covax plan — with some batches sold to Britain.

But the vaccine is not approved by the European Medicines Agency, so EU members are not obliged to accept it.

Britain says all AstraZeneca vaccines will show up the same way on its National Health Service Covid app.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that he was "very confident that that will not prove to be a problem".

But Covax said the EU’s stance risked creating a “two-tier system” that would widen the global vaccine divide.

After the African Union also criticised Brussels on the matter, EU officials blamed the furore on Indian manufacturers for failing to submit a separate application for Covishield.

“A request for authorisation was not made by the producers … although they are well informed of the procedure,” the EU’s delegation to the African Union said.

What is the Covishield vaccine?

Covishield is the name under which the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is made and marketed in India.

People should be reassured that they've received exactly the same stuff
Adam Finn

Doses are manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines.

They account for more than 500 million of the vaccines made available to Covax this year to help developing countries protect their populations.

The EU is a major donor to Covax, but says it was not its decision to use Covishield vaccines as part of the plan.

Why is it not approved in the EU?

The EMA approved the AstraZeneca vaccine in January but it says the Serum Institute needs to submit a separate application for Covishield.

“Even tiny differences in the manufacturing conditions can result in differences in the final product,” the EMA said.

Approved manufacturing sites include factories in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The EU and EMA “stand ready to consider the request for authorisation for the Covishield vaccine” when they receive it, the delegation in Africa said.

Can people still travel to Europe?

The lack of EU approval for Covishield means it is up to each of the bloc's 27 members to decide whether to accept travellers who have had the vaccine.

The Covishield version is listed for emergency use by the World Health Organisation.

Germany says it will not distinguish between Covishield and other AstraZeneca vaccines, although Berlin placed strict travel curbs on India in any case.

Health ministries in Italy and Denmark are among those who say that travellers must have vaccines approved by the EMA.

Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive of the Serum Institute, said many Indians reported problems trying to travel to Europe.

What about people in Britain?

Many AstraZeneca doses are manufactured in Britain but some were imported from India. Batch numbers 4120Z001, 4120Z002 and 4120Z003 were all manufactured by the Serum Institute.

The Department of Health said they were all the same product and would appear on the NHS app under 'Vaxzevria', AstraZeneca's brand name in Europe.

Mr Johnson said he saw no reason why batches approved for use in the UK should not be recognised as part of an EU vaccine passport.

Prof Adam Finn, a member of the UK government’s vaccine committee, said it was an “administrative hurdle that needs to be straightened out”.

“People should be reassured who’ve received these batches that they’ve received exactly the same stuff,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It’s ultimately not in anybody’s interest, including the European Union, to create hurdles that don’t need to be there.”

Updated: July 02, 2021, 2:27 PM