Vaccine passport to help seamless cross-border travel during Haj

The move is timely as the Haj annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca takes place in July


A digital pilgrim vaccine passport could pave the way for seamless cross-border entry into Saudi Arabia and the onward trek to the holy city of Mecca.

All that would be needed was verification that the required doses have been administered, said a top health official yesterday.

“We are looking forward to having the next step in the vaccination plan – authentication,” said Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry Public Health Under-Secretary Dr Hani Jokhdar.

The move is timely as the Haj annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca takes place in July and many choose the months following to perform Umrah, an opportunity for Muslims to refresh their faith, seek forgiveness and pray for their needs.

“As we know we have the Haj and Umrah and we would need official authentication for the people coming for these events,” added Dr Jokhdar.

“Those vaccinated will get a QR code and this will provide all the necessary details and ease the process at the borders.

“If adopted by other countries it will ensure seamless entry for those who have been vaccinated.”

He described the verification process as the final part of ‘the full package’ after the implementation of a successful vaccination programme. Saudi Arabia has currently authorised both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines and others are set to follow.

Dr Jokhdar was speaking at the World Immunisation and Logistics Summit, organised by Hope Consortium, an Abu Dhabi-based logistics group set up to deliver vaccines around the globe, which concluded yesterday.

Abu Dhabi hosted the two-day virtual event amid the pandemic, which gathered top global healthcare and philanthropic leaders, decision-makers, experts and senior government officials to explore a unified global approach to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

His statements on a panel that discussed co-ordination of vaccine logistics in the Middle East came as reports said the kingdom was planning to sterilise the Grand Mosque in Mecca 10 times a day.

Around 60,000 litres of sanitising material will be used and 30 thermal cameras will be deployed to scan for signs of fever among the limited numbers of visitors to keep everyone safe from the virus during Ramadan. Since Umrah pilgrimages resumed after seven months, pilgrims have had to register for limited daily slots through a government app.

More than four million vaccine doses have so far been administered to Saudi residents and citizens, the health ministry added.

The session also featured Bahrain’s Health Ministry Public Health assistant under-secretary Dr Maryam Al Hajeri.

She highlighted the efforts of the National Taskforce for Combating Covid-19 under the leadership of His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince Prime Minister, since the onset of the pandemic, including the successful completion of the phase three trials of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

The free national vaccination campaign featuring five vaccine choices in Bahrain was also highlighted.

“There was a high response to the vaccine, which reflected the trust of people in the system,” said Dr Al Hajeri.

“In terms of readiness, we had prepared vaccination storage facilities at various locations in record-breaking time.”

World Health Organisation – Eastern Middle East Regional Office programme management director Dr Rana Hajjeh, in her concluding remarks, discussed the region’s capability for vaccine production, calling for more co-ordination.

“We have closely heard the region’s request for a regional initiative to revamp vaccine production and, what we need for this, is not just finance, but systems in place,” she said.

“We can’t rely on global goodwill alone. We need self-sufficiency for the region and the countries around.

“We have enough capacity, technical and financial resources; we just need more co-ordination for a regional roadmap for vaccine production.”

The session was moderated by The Economist Middle East correspondent Gregg Carlstrom, who pointed out the disparity that the region is facing in term of vaccine logistics – with countries on extremes like Israel and the UAE that are leading in their vaccination pace, aiming at herd immunity in the coming months, to those like Lebanon which had just received its first shipment of vaccines.

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