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WHO advises against vaccine passports as EU debates 'green pass'

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By Sandrine Amiel  & AP
FILE - In this July 29, 2020 file photo, passengers wearing full protective gear push their luggage in the departure hall of Zaventem international airport, Belgium
FILE - In this July 29, 2020 file photo, passengers wearing full protective gear push their luggage in the departure hall of Zaventem international airport, Belgium   -   Copyright  AP/Francisco Seco
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WHO Europe said Thursday that the international body was not in favour of vaccination passports, just a day after the European Commission outlined proposals for the EU's "digital green pass."

"We do not encourage at this stage that getting a vaccination determines whether you can travel internationally or not," said Hans Kluge, WHO Europe’s regional director.

"We encourage very strongly, as with any vaccine, that there is documentation, whether it is paper-based or preferably digital, which is why WHO is working on a smart digital certificate. But this is something different than a passport."

Catherine Smallwood, COVID-19 incident manager at WHO, said the body was currently "looking at the details of the announcements made by the European Commission."

In the announcement, "it was clear that the new 'green pass' would not be used as a vaccine passport and that "lack of vaccination would not be used to prevent people's travel within the European Union," Smallwood said.

"In fact what this initiative really does is really to bring together data about a particular patient around a number of things, including vaccination."

Kluge explained that the reason why the agency did not support vaccine passports was first and foremost "ethical," considering the "global shortage of vaccines". "So this would increase inequity," Kluge said.

There are also "scientific reasons," the official went on. "We are not sure yet how long the immunity lasts once the person got a COVID-19 vaccine."

"If you get a vaccine, you're protected but still, you can transmit the infection," he added.

Divisive debate

The topic of vaccine certificates has divided EU nations for weeks.

The travel industry and southern European countries with tourism-dependent economies like Greece and Spain have pushed for the quick introduction of a passport that would help eliminate quarantines and testing requirements for tourists.

But several other EU members, including France, argued that it would be premature and discriminatory to introduce such passes since a large majority of EU citizens haven't had access to vaccines so far.

To secure the participation of all member countries, the commission proposed delivering free "Digital Green Certificates" to EU residents who can prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, but also to those who have tested negative for the virus or can prove they recovered from it.

The plan is set to be discussed during a summit of EU leaders next week.

“Being vaccinated will not be a precondition to travel,” the European Commission said.

Infections rise in Europe for third consecutive week

In his introductory remarks, Kluge warned that infections in Europe were rising for the third consecutive week, with over 1.2 million new cases reported last week.

Deaths in the region surpassed 900,000, Kluge added.

"Every week, more than 20,000 people in the region lose their life to the virus," Kluge said, noting that the number was higher now than in March last year.