Vaccines and foreign travel

  • Is Sinopharm an unofficial travel ban? 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, once the world’s darling, has been taking a lot of flack on Twitter in recent weeks, after Canada’s announcement that they will only be accepting Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca/Covishield, and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines as valid in Canada for incoming travellers. This means that those who have received Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines for example, (and in a Sri Lankan context, that is a great many Sri Lankans), are travelling with something of a black mark on their backs. 

The move has been labelled a form of racist border control with one Twitter user (@migrantsoul) tweeting: “States like Canada know exactly who they’re keeping out by deliberately omitting Sinopharm and Sputnik from the list of vaccines they recognise as valid for quarantine-free travel.” 

Canada is by no means alone in this refusal to accept vaccines like Sinopharm, but this move by Canada as well as many other (mostly) Western countries is particularly controversial given that in June the World Health Organisation (WHO) shared that any Covid-19 vaccine it has authorised for emergency use should be recognised by countries as they open up their borders to inoculated travellers.

A common misconception that arises around this “valid/not valid” issue is that many people believe that they are effectively banned from visiting these countries. Colombo Municipal Council Regional Epidemiologist Dr. Dinuka Guruge shared that this is simply not the case and that based on information they received from the Foreign Ministry, there have been no official restrictions grouping vaccines, and there are no countries that are not allowing people to enter their countries based on their vaccination or lack thereof.

She did however note, that in the case of countries like the UK, Sri Lanka is on the Red List which means that any travellers from Sri Lanka will have to undergo a period of quarantine.

Addressing questions raised about vaccine distribution, Dr. Guruge shared that different areas in Sri Lanka received different vaccines based solely on the availability of vaccines at the time of distribution.

Consultant Epidemiologist Dr. Deepa Gamage also shared that no countries are refusing entry to Sri Lankan travellers based on current policies, but some countries do provide relief and exemption from quarantine procedures based on their specific vaccine, and if that vaccine is approved by that country. “Policies do change, however, because Covid-19 is a new disease and different countries are in different stages of outbreaks of the pandemic and so, they also can change from time to time.” Dr. Gamage also recommended that potential travellers check directly with their port of call on exactly what quarantine protocols and regulations they would be subject to in order to avoid misinformation.

Brunch also consulted with Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Director General Dhammika Wijayasinghe on the matter. Wijayasinghe explained that to SLTDA’s knowledge so far, it is not that travellers have been refused entry, but mostly that they have had to follow a longer quarantine. Wijayasinghe also shared that whole of the Health Ministry says there are no such restrictions with entry into foreign countries, SLTDA has received reports from within the industry that certain EU countries have been refusing entry to people with vaccines like Sinopharm, adding that they are meeting with the Health Ministry today (16) to discuss this matter further.

Commenting on the reason for such countries to continue refusing to accept vaccines like Sinopharm as valid, Wijayasinghe shared her personal view that she feels this might have more to do with geopolitics than scientific fact. 

Dr. Gamage, commenting scientifically, shared that though people think some vaccines have better immunogenicity (immune response development)  than others, this is not the case, and all vaccines have good immunogenicity.

Another common trope associated with foreign travel is the need to get a third vaccine dose or booster shot in order to travel. Dr. Gamage explained that booster shots are not related to foreign travel but have been considered by some as an added measure for those with suppressed immunity. She did note, however, that the WHO has instructed medical authorities to focus first on vaccinating their populations with the first and second dose to ensure that as much of the population is fully vaccinated as possible before considering a third dose.

With so much being said about if we can enter other countries or not, we asked how Sri Lanka is responding to travellers visiting our shores. Wijayasinghe explained that if a traveller is not inoculated, they will need to undergo a 14-day quarantine, but the quarantine is practised using bio bubbles so they will still be able to visit approved sites within the bubble.

Wijayasinghe also shared that Sri Lanka is treating all inoculated passengers equally, saying that all inoculated travellers are given the same privilege and follow the same protocols. The only validity clause Sri Lanka looks at is if the vaccine given to a traveller is accepted by the originating country, proving that even in times of trouble, Sri Lanka can always be counted on to be hospitable.