Travel is no easy feat in the midst of the pandemic (photo: AFP)
Throughout the past year anyone wishing to travel was at a loss, especially those travelling to destinations requiring full coronavirus vaccinations, or wishing to avoid days of unnecessary quarantine.
Sherine Khaled, who will soon be travelling for the first time to study in France, must get the vaccine before she leaves at the end of the month, otherwise she will be stuck in quarantine for days, unable to open a bank account or check in with her university.
Khaled was excited to hear that specialised centres dedicated for travel had opened to vaccinate and issue vaccination certificates. She is hoping to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it is a single dose so she would not have to wait for a second shot or to quarantine when she travels.
Likewise, Noha Yehia, who is scheduled to travel to the Netherlands, cannot wait for these centre to fully operate. She already took her first dose of AstraZeneca in June and hopes to get her second jab before she leaves.
Both Khaled and Yehia have been repeatedly trying to call the hotline 15335 dedicated by the Health Ministry for questions related to the Covid-19 vaccination to ask how they need to proceed, but never succeeded in getting through.
Though the new centres have not yet started giving jabs to travellers, they are giving the QR coded vaccination certificates to those already vaccinated. QR coded certificates have become a requirement for travellers.
“We were relieved to hear that specialised centres dedicated for travel purposes have been set up,” said one of three women in their 30s who were drinking soft drinks outside Nasr City health centre, one of the specialised centres. However, they said, almost in unison, that “happiness vanished once we arrived.”
“We are now [3pm] drinking soft drinks to celebrate the achievement of obtaining the QR coded certificates, a process that started five hours earlier,” one of them said preferring to remain anonymous. Though they appeared exhausted, they were rejoicing the moment of accomplishing their mission.
Monday was the second operating day for the Nasr City health centre, one of six centres in Cairo and 126 nationwide, that started issuing certificates for those who wish to travel by documenting that they were vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The three, who work as medical staff members in Saudi Arabia, told Al-Ahram Weekly that their complaint is that what should have been a less than five-minute process, in which the QR coded certificate is printed, took five hours to be received. “Long queues, no order, no precautions,” the three girls said, adding that at 10am their number at the waiting list was 150.
The recently-issued certificates are secured by Egypt’s recently-inaugurated Secured and Smart Documents Complex and have QR codes, which can easily be verified at airports worldwide, according to Health Ministry Spokesperson Khaled Megahed.
By scanning the QR code of the new certificate, which costs LE100 for Egyptians and $10 for non-Egyptians, via a mobile phone, the certificate holder’s information will appear, Megahed said.
The specialised centres aim at cutting short multiple procedures for travellers who earlier had to obtain a vaccination certificate from the Ministry of Health before certifying it at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Hassan Abdel-Gawwad, a 41-year-old accountant who works in Saudi Arabia, was among those waiting outside. He told the Weekly the process to obtain the new QR coded certificates is cumbersome and wastes a lot of time and energy.
“As long as the QR coded certificate here in Egypt is intended to be used digitally why don’t they ask us to pay the due fees online, and then receive the digital certificate online, or at least give us an appointment to receive it in person instead of waiting hours under the sun to only enter the centre and wait again and waste more time in a new queue,” Abdel-Gawwad asked.
The Nasr City health centre, which only has one computer and a printer, issued about 250 certificates during the first day of operation, and 350 on the second.
The Health Ministry is currently finalising an application, Egypt Health Passport, in two versions for Android and iPhone to serve as an electronic health passport that can be used at international airports by showing the vaccination status, the Health Ministry spokesperson said.
Given that a majority of countries have not approved China’s two vaccines yet — Sinopharm and Sinovac even though they have been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) — the majority of those who wish to travel are choosing to be inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, leading to its shortage.
Many citizens, whose second doses were recently due, according to a previous text message received, have complained about the postponement of their second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine until 11 August, as new messages they recently received say.
Egypt, which started its vaccination campaign in January, has imported millions of doses of the WHO-approved British AstraZeneca vaccine, in addition to the Chinese Sinopharm, and the Russian Sputnik V, which hasn’t been approved by the WHO.
“The still unrecognised vaccines, especially the Chinese shots, will soon be within the loop. It is all about politics,” Islam Anan, an epidemics specialist and a pharmaeconomics lecturer at Misr International University, told the Weekly.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve the Chinese vaccine, which means that countries that have traditionally depended on the FDA’s lead are also delaying approval, Anan explains. But the delays, he argues, have nothing to do with the effectiveness of the vaccine. What they do mean, however, is that Egypt needs to continue importing vaccines for those who wish to travel.
According to Health Ministry officials, Egypt will receive in the coming days shipments of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines, which are required for travelling to the European Union, the United States, and some Gulf countries.
“Egypt will receive 148 million coronavirus vaccine doses between August and the end of the year, which are enough to vaccinate 83.7 million people,” Health Minister Hala Zayed said on 29 July.
From August until the end of the year, the country will receive 20 million Sputnik vaccine doses, 20 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, 35.6 million AstraZeneca doses and 2.4 million Pfizer doses, Zayed noted.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, Zayed stated that “Egypt is cooperating with UNICEF to provide the country with 63 vaccine storage refrigerators free of charge.”
The refrigerators, with a total storage capacity of around 619,000 doses, will be used to store the Pfizer vaccine doses scheduled to arrive in Egypt within days, the minister said.
According to Pfizer, there are three ways to store its vaccine: one by ultra-low-temperature freezers, which are commercially available and can extend shelf life for up to six months. The second is through the Pfizer thermal shippers, in which doses will arrive that can be used as temporary storage units by refilling with dry ice every five days for up to 30 days of storage, or in refrigeration units that are commonly available in hospitals in which the vaccine can be stored for five days at refrigerated 2-8°C conditions.
Though Egypt has announced plans to vaccinate 40 million citizens against the coronavirus by the end of the year, only 5.3 million doses were administered by 26 July, according to the WHO, reportedly due to a delay in vaccine delivery.
Egypt has been witnessing a slight increase in daily detected cases which are still below the 100 infections, has so far reported 284,362 cases, including 16,535 deaths and 231,259 recoveries.
Egypt will also receive during this period raw materials required to locally produce 70.2 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, according to the minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly