The Canadian government is talking to international partners about developing COVID-19 vaccination certificate systems that may one day help facilitate travel across international borders, but bureaucrats in Ottawa, as well as some politicians, are wondering if such a system is the best way to proceed.
“We are working on this on a scientific basis and will have more to announce when we have to announce,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday. “At the moment, we are focused on overcoming this pandemic and preparing to come back strongly when we go through it.”
The lack of enthusiasm in federal government circles to develop vaccination certificates is matched by the World Health Organization, which argued in an article published in February that “national authorities and transport operators should not introduce vaccination proof requirements COVID- 19 for international travel as a condition of departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns about the effectiveness of vaccination in reducing transmission. ”
Trudeau himself, along with several political and bureaucratic officials interviewed for this story, believes that there is little appetite among voters to relax border restrictions soon. Indeed, Ontario Prime Minister Doug Ford last week asked the Trudeau government to narrow the border and Trudeau responded by promising to work with Ontario to suspend visits to that province by any international student.
The UK government is expected to start issuing so-called vaccine passports to its citizens later this month.
There are no set deadlines for Canada to develop such a document. Officials from various Canadian government departments are contributing to early discussions on a vaccination certificate, although it appears that the Canadian Public Health Agency (PHAC) is the main department in the file for now.
“We are actively looking at how to support the development of a way to confirm vaccination at the borders,” the agency’s president, Iain Stewart, told parliamentarians on the House of Commons Standing Health Committee on Friday.
One of the first obstacles to be eliminated for any vaccine certificate system is the current state of vaccine science. For example, as Canada’s public health director, Dr. Theresa Tam, said earlier this week, scientists have not conclusively established that vaccinated people will no longer be contagious and will carry the disease. Until this issue is resolved, a vaccination certificate would be less useful.
“There is not enough data on some of the vaccines at the moment,” said Tam. “The data looks very good in the direction that vaccines are likely to protect against reduced transmission – the extent to which they do so is an evolving scientific study, but I think they can reduce transmission. I think it looks like this. But we don’t have data for all vaccines. “
There is also a problem with booster doses and how long each different vaccine provides protection for travelers. This is also a subject that is widely discussed among scientists and among vaccine manufacturers themselves. And, as Tam told health committee MPs on Friday, it is still unclear whether the reinforcement formulation will be the same as the original dose formulation. Until scientists agree on these issues, it would be difficult to know for how long any vaccination certificate would be valid, or when a holder of such a certificate would need to renew it.
Deputy Director of Public Health, Dr. Howard Njoo, told reporters this week that another significant issue for the Canadian government to address when it comes to vaccination certificates is which vaccines he will recognize in such a document. Canada has four vaccines approved, but has not approved, for example, the Sputnik vaccine developed by Russia. Likewise, the United States has not approved the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has already been delivered into the arms of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.
Then there are ethical and privacy issues associated with the federal government that regularly checks provincial health databases to retrieve Canadians’ individual vaccine records so that those records can be included in a federal travel document.
Canada and the provinces are developing a database system called “Vaccine Connect”, which could be part of the infrastructure to support a federal vaccination certificate, Stewart said on Friday.
Finally, several sources in the various government departments charged with contributing to the discussion of the vaccine certificate question whether a vaccine certificate system, if any works, would be the best system for regulating international travelers. These individuals say that a more likely system to protect Canadians from contagious travelers would be a robust system of rapid testing at border points and reliance on national vaccination programs, along with different rules for different regions and countries.
“I think it is an interaction between increasing our vaccines and increasing vaccination rates so that we can potentially have people who have been vaccinated, representing not only a lower risk for themselves, but also for each other,” said Tam. ” So, this is another concept that we are trying to work for. ”
Trudeau noted that many Canadians are already familiar with the concept of presenting vaccination vouchers for travel to some countries. Some countries in Africa and South America, for example, prohibit the entry of anyone who cannot present a yellow card called International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) as proof of vaccination against yellow fever.
“As was the case with the pre-pandemic, vaccination certificates are part of international travel to certain regions and are naturally expected when it comes to this pandemic and the coronavirus,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday. “How we actually implemented this in alignment with partners and allies around the world is something we are working on now to coordinate.”
But despite several requests from various federal departments, no official has been able to provide much detail about the discussions that Canada is having with other international partners, when these discussions took place or will take place next, or who is participating in them.
Stewart, PHAC’s chairman, told Commons health committee MPs on Friday that Canada’s representative at the World Health Organization was monitoring discussions about setting standards for a vaccine certificate.
That said, sources from the Canadian aviation and tourism industry took note of an interview that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave The New York Times last week, in which she indicated that EU member countries would be prepared to accept American tourists who could show proof of vaccination. These Canadian industry sources say the revelation should encourage Ottawa and the provinces to develop a protocol that Canada can use to accept incoming travelers and that Canadians can use to travel abroad.