EU commission recommends 9-month limit on Covid-19 vaccine validity for travel

The EU is looking to update its Covid-19 certificate that has made travel easier within the bloc amid a surge in cases. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS) - The EU commission on Thursday (Nov 25) recommended that the bloc's vaccination certificate, which has allowed free travel of Covid-vaccinated Europeans, be valid only up to nine months after a second dose.

The EU is looking to update its Covid-19 certificate that has made travel easier within the bloc as a surge of Covid-19 cases raises fears that cross border movement could be again under threat.

"We propose a validity of nine months for the European anti-Covid certificate and beyond this period, its validity would no longer be recognised in the absence of a booster dose," EU commissioner Didier Reynders said in a press briefing.

This period takes into account guidelines by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on booster doses after six months and leaves an additional three months to give countries time to adjust vaccination campaigns, Mr Reynders added.

Consequently, European Union residents will need to have Covid-19 vaccine booster jabs if they want to travel to another country in the bloc next summer free of tests or quarantines, the European Commission proposed.

Accepting that immunity wanes over time, the executive Commission is proposing that people should be considered covered if the final dose of their primary vaccination was within the last nine months, and that this update should apply from Jan 10.

Given most EU residents who were vaccinated received their final doses in the second and third quarters of 2021, their coverage would mostly expire by the middle of next year.

The EU's Covid certificate is seen as a success story for keeping cross border travel open for vaccinated Europeans, giving a much needed boost to the pandemic-stricken economy, especially the tourism sector.

The certificate, backed by legislation approved by the European Parliament, came into force in July and allows bearers travelling within the European Union to prove they were fully vaccinated, had a recent negative Covid test, or were recovered from the coronavirus.

Its use helped European summer destinations such as Greece bounce back, and several other non-EU countries, including Britain, have since also plugged into the system.

But climbing case numbers in several EU countries as winter pushes people indoors have prompted some governments to start tightening restrictions again.

Austria has a national lockdown, the Netherlands a curfew for bars and Germany is poised to announce new measures.

Austria has restricted leisure travel as part of a three-week lockdown. PHOTO: REUTERS

Several countries, including Greece, France and Germany, are moving towards requiring a third booster shot for someone to be considered fully vaccinated, given mounting evidence that the effectiveness of current jabs wanes after four or five months.

But, at an EU level, that would leave several, mainly eastern, member states out in the cold, given their relatively very low vaccination rates even for one or two doses.

The recommendation by the EU executive would need to be approved by the member states as well as the European Parliament.

"It is a new recommendation, we will see what the reactions of the member states will be," said Reynders.

The issue is expected to be one of the main ones tackled at an EU summit scheduled for December 16-17.

The Commission wants to harmonise rules across the 27 EU nations to allow free movement, a cornerstone of the European Union, but is facing new restrictions as cases break records in Europe and many EU countries roll out booster doses.

It made its proposal as Europe again became the centre of the Covid-19 pandemic even after successful vaccination campaigns, prompting some countries to consider new curbs on movement as the continent heads into winter.

More than 1.5 million people have died from Covid-19 in Europe since the coronavirus pandemic began, an AFP tally of official data showed on Thursday as several countries reintroduced measures to try to stem the spread.

As of 1000 GMT, the official death toll stood at 1,500,105 in a combined 52 countries since the first fatality was recorded in the region in February 2020, the data showed.

EU governments, which will need to approve the Commission recommendation, kicked off debate on the topic on Tuesday.

Greece proposed on Wednesday that people should in future be able to travel freely if they have received a dose in the past six months.

EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that the current vaccination coverage was 65 per cent of the EU population.

"For everyone to travel and live as safely as possible, we need to reach significantly higher vaccination rates - urgently. We also need to reinforce our immunity with booster vaccines," she said.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on Wednesday recommended vaccine boosters for all adults, with priority for those over 40.

The Commission did say there were no studies yet expressly addressing the effectiveness of booster shots on transmission of Covid-19, but said it was likely that they provided longer protection than provided by initial shots.

EU coordination on Covid-19 passes, which show if a holder is fully vaccinated or has had a recent negative test or recovery from infection, has allowed an easing of curbs on cross-border travel.

The passes, typically viewed on mobile devices, are issued by individual countries, but are recognised across the bloc.

The revised rules would also allow travel to the EU for children between six and 17 years old who have had a negative PCR test done before departure even if they're not vaccinated.

Countries across the EU are scrambling to counter the pandemic's fourth wave, with varying degrees of restrictions against a backdrop of uneven vaccination rates.

Germany is considering compulsory shots for some vulnerable groups, Italy has imposed limits for unvaccinated people, and Denmark is considering mandating face masks in public transport. Austria has restricted leisure travel as part of a three-week lockdown.

Separately, the EU's drug regulator on Thursday approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11, opening the way for them to be given a first shot as Europe battles surging infections.

The travel industry has been watching the bloc's plans carefully.

After lifting capacity from June through October, European airlines have started to pull back. The number of seats being offered on flights in Austria this week is 39 per cent below 2019 levels, a three percentage-point drop-off from the start of November, based on data from flight tracker OAG. Similar declines have occurred in France and Germany.

The setback is likely to carry on through Christmas, and could have an impact on summer 2022 holiday planning that typically takes place around year end, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary said in an interview this week.

"It's inevitable that we will undermine confidence between now and Christmas and that will disrupt Christmas and it will also unsettle people between Christmas and New Year, when they normally start booking their summer holidays," he said, adding that until last week, things were going great.

The Breitscheid square Christmas market in Berlin on Nov 22, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WHO listing

The European Commission also proposed accepting all vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation for travel purposes, which would allow non-essential travel to the EU from outside the bloc for people inoculated with vaccines made in China and India.

The EU has so far authorised vaccines produced by Pfizer-BionTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca (when produced in Europe), and Johnson & Johnson.

In addition to these shots, the WHO has approved the vaccines produced by Chinese makers Sinopharm and Sinovac and by Indian company Bharat Biotech. It has also authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India by the Serum Institute.

Currently, most EU countries do not accept people vaccinated with vaccines that have not been approved in the EU.

As an additional safeguard, the Commission proposed requiring proof of a negative molecular test for all travellers who have been vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine which is not approved in the EU.

It is unclear whether EU governments will heed this recommendation.

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