Global vaccine certification would help the world bounce back from COVID-19, says political scientist

U of A professor Andy Knight is leading international research on developing a standard vaccination protocol to spur social and economic recovery worldwide.

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Political scientist Andy Knight is leading an international team of experts looking at how to design and implement a global vaccination protocol that would help countries reopen their economies safely. (Photo: John Ulan)

As the world looks to a post-pandemic future, a global COVID-19 vaccine certification program might be the surest way to restore free movement across borders and reboot ailing economies, according to University of Alberta political scientist Andy Knight.

“We need to develop an international protocol—especially for small, more vulnerable states—that will allow them to open their economies in a safe way,” said Knight.

It means everyone vaccinated for COVID-19 would carry a standardized international certificate when they travel. It would also require governments to work closely with the World Health Organization rather than determining policy on their own, said Knight, a professor in the Faculty of Arts.

To explore what might be involved in designing and implementing such a global protocol, Knight and his interdisciplinary team of researchers have received a seed grant of about $18,000 from the Worldwide Universities Network’s Research Development Fund. The U of A has contributed an additional $5,000 to kick-start the project.

The team currently consists of researchers from Canada, the U.K., Australia and the Caribbean, said Knight, who will serve as principal investigator. But he hopes to expand the network well beyond that in the coming months to include health experts and political scientists from as many countries as possible.

“My colleagues are already doing work in Africa, in the Caribbean and in Asia, so I think at the end of the day, we're going to get a pretty good international scope.”

They will first examine the WHO's successful protocol for yellow fever—standard in African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana—to see whether a similar plan might be applied more widely.

Global co-ordination a daunting challenge

While this might seem like a distinctly public health challenge, the politics of international co-ordination are equally daunting, said Knight.

“Global leaders are looking at what political scientists have to say to guide their policy-making in public health these days,” he said.

Hampering any global co-ordination effort is the reputational hit suffered by the WHO during the pandemic, especially after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would pull funding last May, said Knight.

As a result, some countries have decided to take a more unilateral, nationalistic approach to vaccination.

“We can't treat this as a nationalistic issue—COVID-19 doesn’t recognize borders, and neither should the vaccine. Countries with the wherewithal should be willing to share what they have with other countries,” he said, adding that it’s vital to restore trust in the WHO.

A central premise of Knight’s research is that a health crisis like a pandemic cannot be separated from other social, economic and political realities.

“I think it's important for us to really get back to this notion of multilateralism again,” said Knight, noting that in today’s world, even national security can no longer be understood in terms of a simple inside/outside or domestic/international dichotomy.

“Security is no longer about military threats—it's about health threats and internal threats to democracy. That line has now become so blurred that you can’t think of security in that narrow sense anymore.”

Progress stalled by pandemic

Knight’s research team will also look at how the pandemic has stalled progress on the United Nations’Sustainable Development Goals—a key mandate of the Worldwide Universities Network.

“During the crisis, some 70 countries literally halted childhood vaccination programs because of COVID,” he said. “Some have stopped services for family planning and screening for non-COVID-related infectious diseases.

“The pandemic has caused a reversal of many decades of improvement on the SDGs. In many cases, it wiped out all the economic gains in those countries.”

Efforts at global vaccination have already become fractured, said Knight, with some low- and middle-income countries—as many as 92—preferring to procure the COVID vaccine through a private financing alliance calledGAVI Covax rather than through the WHO.

“We don't want to see a splintering of international co-operation; we think that there's an intersection between the public and the private that should happen.”

Given the urgency of global vaccination, Knight said his team hopes to have a preliminary report ready for governments to review within about six months. A full report—providing specific examples of best practices—will follow in about a year, including suggestions on how to boost local economies.

Beyond the current pandemic, however, a standardized global blueprint for pandemic vaccination will be critical to our survival, said Knight.

“We know health experts are expecting other kinds of COVID-type infections in the future, even worse than what we have right now.”