A Patchwork: Europe and COVID-19 Vaccination Passports

(Reuters) – European Union leaders moved closer on Thursday to an agreement on certificates showing that citizens have been vaccinated against COVID-19, a move that could revive international travel and save this summer’s holiday season.

Some countries want an EU-wide approach instead of a patchwork of national schemes that in many cases are not intended to serve as travel documents. Halfway through a summit of leaders on the pandemic, officials said “convergence on a harmonised approach” to certificates was emerging.

Here’s where several EU member states and other European countries stand on vaccination certificates:

BETTER TOGETHER

GREECE has led calls for an EU-wide vaccine certificate to open up summer tourism. It has reached an agreement with Israel, which has launched a digital “Green Pass”, to ease travel for those with proof of vaccination. It issues certificates for people who have had twin shots.

Athens is in talks with Britain about a similar agreement, but its tourism minister was quoted as saying on Thursday that even unvaccinated Britons could visit the country.

SPAIN, AUSTRIA and BULGARIA also support a common EU approach. The government in Vienna says that, if there is no agreement at EU level by the spring, it will implement its own plan.

DOING THEIR OWN THING

DENMARK plans to launch a digital passport to document a traveller’s vaccination status, designed to be compatible with any future EU-wide scheme. SWEDEN plans a similar digital passport by summer, assuming an international standard is in place by then, as does FINLAND.

HUNGARY has announced that from March 1 it will issue a vaccination passport in the form of a card to citizens who have had the vaccine or have immunity after recovering from COVID-19. A decision about possible waivers from coronavirus restrictions will be taken later. People carrying the immunity passport will not have to go into quarantine.

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin ordered his government in January to consider issuing certificates to those who had been inoculated with domestic vaccines against COVID-19 for overseas travels.

THINKING ABOUT IT

BRITAIN is reviewing how COVID-19 status certificates could help reopen the economy. It will consider a system allowing vaccinated individuals to travel abroad more freely once more is known about the efficacy of vaccines against COVID-19 variants. The UK is working with the World Health Organization and other countries on an international framework for travel.

PORTUGAL is considering various options to resurrect the travel sector, but has cautioned that an EU-wide passport could lead to “some constraints” given delays in vaccinations.

WE HAVE OUR DOUBTS

GERMANY, which has restricted travel from neighbours with high rates of infection, is still in the early stages of debating the idea of vaccination certificates. There are widespread concerns that these could result in discrimination against those who choose not to be vaccinated.

ROMANIAN President Klaus Iohannis has said an EU vaccination passport would be divisive, splitting Europe between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

NO PLANS YET

POLAND has introduced a special QR code via its mObywatel app that can be scanned to confirm a user has been fully vaccinated, meaning they have received two doses. It has not yet said if it will introduce a specific vaccination “passport”.

FRANCE has not revealed any plans for a vaccination passport of its own, though travel industry lobbies and some opposition politicians have been pressing for such a scheme. ITALY does not have a national vaccination passport scheme.

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White House Working With Facebook and Twitter to Tackle Antivaxxers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House has been reaching out to social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s Google about clamping down on COVID misinformation and getting their help to stop it from going viral, a senior administration official said.

President Joe Biden, who has raced to curb the pandemic since taking office, has made inoculating Americans one of his top priorities and called the move “a wartime effort.” But tackling public fear about taking the vaccine has emerged as a major impediment for the administration.

Since the onset of the pandemic, calls from lawmakers asking the companies to tackle the spread of COVID misinformation on their platforms have grown.

The White House’s direct engagement with the companies to mitigate the challenge has not been previously reported. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain has previously said the administration will try to work with Silicon Valley on the issue.

“Disinformation that causes vaccine hesitancy is going to be a huge obstacle to getting everyone vaccinated and there are no larger players in that than the social media platforms,” said the source, who has direct knowledge of the White House’s efforts.

“We are talking to them … so they understand the importance of misinformation and disinformation and how they can get rid of it quickly.”

The Biden White House is especially trying to make sure such material “does not start trending on such platforms and become a broader movement,” the source said.

The source cited the example of the anti-vaccine protests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in early February, and said the White House wants to stop events like that from happening again.

The protest, organized on Facebook through a page that promotes debunked claims about the coronavirus pandemic, masks and immunization, briefly blocked public access to the stadium – one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, where health authorities are administering more than 8,000 vaccines a day.

The event illustrated the extent to which social media platforms have become a critical organizing tool for movements such as the anti-vaccine drive, that spread misinformation and disinformation.

A growing number of anti-vaccine activists, emboldened by their rising social media following, have helped the movement gain strength in the United States. A report by the Center for Countering Digital Health in July 2020 found social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7ยท8 million people since 2019.

The companies have repeatedly vowed to get rid of such material on their platforms but gaps remain in their enforcement efforts.

On Thursday, Senator Richard Blumenthal criticized the platforms in a tweet for carrying ads that he said funds and promotes “dangerous conspiracy theories, COVID-19 disinformation and malign foreign propaganda.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company has reached out to the White House to offer “any assistance we can provide” and has recently announced a new policy to remove COVID and vaccine misinformation along with pages, groups, and accounts that repeatedly spread such material.

A Twitter spokesman said the company is “in regular communication with the White House on a number of critical issues including COVID-19 misinformation.”

Alphabet Inc’s Google did not comment on engagement with the White House, instead pointing to a company blog on and how it stops misinformation.

The source said the companies “were receptive” as they engaged with the White House. “But it is too soon to say whether or not it translates into lessening the spread of misinformation.”

There will be more details on how the White House is engaging with the social media companies on this issue in the “next ten days or so”, the source added.

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Staff at Swedish Health Agency Get Police Protection as Threats Increase

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Some employees of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, which shaped the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, have been given police protection after an increase in threats against them, the head of the agency said on Thursday.

Sweden’s response to the virus, which has caused more than 2 million deaths worldwide, has differed from that of many other nations, relying more on voluntary social distancing than strict lockdowns.

Sweden has suffered more than 12,500 deaths, a per capita figure many times higher than its Nordic neighbours, but lower than several European countries that opted for lockdowns.

The high mortality rate has sparked a fierce debate about whether authorities should have taken tougher measures, with the agency and its chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, at the centre of the storm.

“It has gone so far that we have death threats that are being investigated by the police,” agency head Johan Carlson said in an interview with news agency TT.

“It started in spring and then, just as now, much of it is aimed at our spokespeople. But it has increased and we experience it daily. We have staff who have been given police protection.”

Carlson gave no further details and was not immediately available for comment.

Tegnell told Reuters in an interview last June that he had received death threats.

Police have been told of the most serious threats, including those against families of agency employees, and the agency has beefed up security at its offices, Carlson said.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said the threats “filled him with anger”.

He said, “A line has been crossed when people who are doing their jobs and doing their best to protect lives .. during a pandemic are subject to this.”

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Johnson & Johnson Has Only a Few Million COVID-19 Vaccine Doses in Stock as Likely Launch Nears

(Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson has only a few million doses of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in its inventory even as likely U.S. regulatory authorization is only a few weeks away, White House officials said on Wednesday.

J&J remains committed to providing 100 million doses by June but deliveries are likely to be “back-end loaded” as J&J works with the U.S. government to boost supply, Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said during a press call.

“Across the last few weeks we’ve learned that there is not a big inventory of Johnson and Johnson. There’s a few million doses that we’ll start with,” Zients said.

J&J said in a statement it intends to immediately begin distributing doses upon U.S. authorization and expects to supply 100 million doses to the United States in the first half of 2021.

The United States has been struggling to hasten its vaccine rollout because of a limited supply of doses. Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have promised to deliver 200 million doses of their two-dose vaccines by the end of March but so far fewer than 72 million doses have been shipped around the U.S. and around 55 million shots have been given.

The U.S. paid J&J $1 billion in August to help fund the development of its vaccine in exchange for a guarantee of 100 million doses and an option to buy 200 million more. It also provided J&J with $456 million in March.

The Biden administration has promised to explore every option available to aid drugmakers, including J&J, in boosting vaccine production. It said it is deploying wartime powers through the Defense Production Act to help them secure needed supplies.

J&J’s experimental shot involves a single dose and can be stored in refrigerators as opposed to freezers, which could help speed up vaccinations.

Zients said the vaccine could be authorized in a couple of weeks. It is scheduled to be reviewed on Feb. 26 by a panel of outside advisors to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. J&J requested FDA authorization earlier this month.

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