Hope and worry surround travel passport

PETALING JAYA: With the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme underway, the tourism industry is hopeful travel restrictions will gradually be lifted with the issuance of travel passports.

Health experts, however, say it may be too soon to ease up on restrictions.

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang said any initiative to normalise travel would be welcomed as it has been 13 months since Malaysia’s travel restrictions started on March 18,2020.

“Perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel if there is easing of international travel restrictions.

“The vaccine passport is an option other than the International Air Transport Association (IATA) travel pass, ” he said.

Commenting on concerns that the vaccine passport could be discriminatory for those who were not eligible for vaccine jabs, Tan said there was no plan that fits all and suggested that certain exemptions be introduced for those who could not be vaccinated.

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba said while a vaccine passport might appear to support public health measures to combat the pandemic, there were several considerations that needed to be taken into account before it could be implemented.

“An international vaccination verification system or vaccine passport involves several issues such as the sovereignty and rights of nations as well as individual rights.

“There are also questions on the feasibility of establishing such a system, its trustworthiness and its effectiveness in the face of potential virus mutations, ” he said.

He raised concerns on the variability in vaccine effectiveness and whether all vaccines could be recognised as equally effective.

“Many Covid-19 vaccines have been produced but some may come from countries whose drug regulatory bodies are not recognised by others.

“We also need to consider those who cannot be vaccinated for some reason or other, for example those who have suffered anaphylactic reactions in the past, ” he said.

Dr Awang highlighted the risk of travellers contracting a different variant of Covid-19 which may be more virulent and more transmissible and cannot be prevented by some vaccines.

“We must ensure that newer variants are taken care of.

“Healthcare also needs to be on top of things. Different standards of care in different countries will make the assurance of safe travel a bit more difficult, ” he said.

Dr Awang said certain standard operating procedures would need to be followed for safe travel which reduce the likelihood of picking up infections from elsewhere.

“Perhaps rapid testing might need to be instituted for some places.

“There are already good, sensitive rapid tests being made available which use breath or saliva. We need to put in place careful SOP, plans and reciprocal arrangements, ” he said.

He suggested that for a start, travel bubbles could be initiated between countries which have demonstrated herd immunity from vaccinations.

“There needs to be a reciprocal arrangement which can be expanded to include more countries later on, ” he said.

Universiti Putra Malaysia medical epidemiologist Assoc Prof Dr Malina Osman recommended for vaccine passports to be issued only when the number of fully vaccinated people in a population was large enough to reduce the risk of transmission.

“The current figures for those who have been fully vaccinated is still far from the minimum 40%.”

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