Why Has UK Classified Indians With Both Doses of Covishield as 'Unvaccinated'?
Covishield is bioequivalent of Vaxzevria – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine used to inoculate the majority of the UK.
As the United Kingdom relaxed border restrictions to allow foreign travellers into the country from 4 October, it said that Indians who have received both doses of Covishield will be considered 'unvaccinated' and will have to undergo a '10-day self-isolation'.
The COVID-19 jab, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), under the brand name 'Covishield', is the bioequivalent of 'Vaxzevria ' – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that is used to inoculate a majority of the UK population.
What's the reason behind UK considering those who took double dose of 'Vaxzevria' to be vaccinated but not 'Covishield'?
What Does the New Rule Say?
Under the new rule, only those who have got a double-dose vaccine such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, or Moderna or the single-dose Janssen vaccine “under an approved vaccination program in the UK, Europe, US or UK vaccine programme overseas” will be considered fully vaccinated.
As per the expanded list, people who are also vaccinated by public health bodies in Australia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bahrain, Brunei, Canada, Dominica, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan will be considered fully vaccinated.
Those who are travelling from these countries will have to take a COVID-19 test on arrival in the UK, but can skip the 10-day quarantine.
However, this expanded list does not include India. Therefore, Indians must take a pre-travel COVID test, another one on arrival, and quarantine for 10 days.
Covishield-Vaxzevria: Same Vaccine, But Different Approvals?
Speaking to news agency PTI, an official from the British High Commission in India, addressed criticism against the new guidelines, stating:
“We are engaging with the Government of India to explore how we could expand the UK recognition of vaccine certification to people vaccinated by a relevant public health body in India."
However, a clear reason for not recognising those with double shots of Covishield as 'vaccinated' has not been provided by the UK government.
This comes as a surprise because the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had approved the SII-produced vaccines even as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is yet to give its nod for the same.
Notably, at least five million Covishield doses were shipped from India earlier this year, as part of the UK's 10-million-dose AstraZeneca order with SII.
In July, UK PM Boris Johnson even insisted that he saw "no reason at all" why MHRA-approved vaccines should not be used for vaccine passports, when concerns were raised over EMA's delay in approvals.
India's 'Reciprocal Measure' Warning
An upset India has taken this up with the UK at the highest levels, including External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla.
India warned that UK not recognising Covishield is "discriminatory" and it is within its "right to take reciprocal measures", Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said, reported NDTV on 21 September.
In a tweet, Jaishankar too called for an 'early resolution' of the quarantine issue in 'mutual interest', after meeting the new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Former Union Ministers Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor came down heavily on travel regulations for 'vaccinated' Indians stating that it showed undertones of 'racism'.
Why Has EMA Delayed Approval?
In a previous article on The Quint, Health Journalist Divya Rajagopal explained that even though vaccines manufactured by SII and AstraZeneca are identical, they are not interchangeable. This is because they are manufactured at two different sites.
This is also why the EMA asked SII to submit a separate application – after news broke that Covishield was not covered by the agency's list of vaccines for lifting travel restrictions.
For a vaccine maker to be considered 'legit', Rajagopal explained that they have to pass three crucial requirements – as stated by EMA:
Good clinical practice
Good laboratory practice
Good manufacturing practice
Therefore, once a clinical trial study design is submitted and peer-reviewed, the site of manufacture will be inspected by regulators. Once this is complete and meets their standard, the vaccine is green-lit.
While SII head Adar Poonawalla in July had said that the EMA approvals for Covishield will be expected in a month, there has been no update on it yet.
However, the agency left it to member-states to make exceptions.
Countries That Recognise Covishield
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed Covishield as among the approved vaccines across the world.
Therefore, countries like US (as of now), consider those who have received Covishield as vaccinated, even if it does not have an FDA approval.
In Europe, as many as 18 countries, including France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Croatia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, are among those who recognise the vaccine for travel.
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