Italy: Fresh pandemic woes for those jabbed with ‘wrong’ vaccines

People who accepted non-EU approved shots, such as Sputnik or Sinopharm, are being shut out from public life.

Italy is only giving the Green Pass to people who took the four vaccines approved by the European Union [File: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Milan, Italy – When Duccio Armenise, an Italian, decided to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Russia, the only jab he could receive was Sputnik.

“We were in the middle of an outbreak, and I had seen what COVID had done to a few friends, so I was really scared,” he told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t want to face COVID without antibodies, so I got the shots.”

He expected some problems once he returned to Italy, since Sputnik was not in use in the European Union, “but I was confident that by the time I came back they would be solved.”

But months later, Sputnik is yet to receive approval from the World Health Organization (WHO), it is still being evaluated by the European Union, and Italy will not hand out a Green Pass to anyone who got the Russian shot.

Now in Italy, without the vaccine pass, Armenise cannot enter work offices, the coffee shops and restaurants where he used to hold meetings, and the swimming pools that help him treat his chronic pain.

He is trapped in vaccine limbo.

Because of health risks, he cannot get injected again with an approved vaccine and the two options available to him are out of his reach.

He could get tested for COVID every three days to receive a Green Pass, but he would have to pay 15 euros ($17) for each test – a cost of 150 euros (174 euros) a month.

Or he could get the pass if he became infected with COVID and recovered.

“There is still no timeline, nor guidelines, for people in my situation,” he said.

‘Vaccinated but not recognised’

France was the first country in Europe to use its health pass to curtail access to public venues, when it announced in July that people would need a certificate to enter bars, restaurants, trains, and aeroplanes.

The goal was to compel people to get vaccinated, and despite the protests that ensued, millions did.

Italy copied the measure, but pushed further.

From August, its Green Pass has been mandatory for access to restaurants, cultural venues, gyms, sports events, and conferences. From September, that was extended to enter planes, ships, trains, and buses, as well as universities. From October 15, workers will need to show the vaccine pass to enter workplaces.

There is no official data on how many are unable to secure Green Passes because of the unapproved shots they received, but some experts, even at government ministries, estimate about 100,000 people are in this predicament, according to la Repubblica.

Al Jazeera interviewed people who took Russia’s Sputnik, China’s Sinopharm, and Cuba’s Soberana vaccines.

One scientist, who requested anonymity, was vaccinated with Soberana and said he will not be able to access his research facilities.

Fashion student Jacopo Montanari, who took the Sputnik jab, said, “For my specific course, it would be almost impossible to follow lessons online.

“Even during the lockdown, we were allowed to go to school. It’s almost impossible to do this work solely online.”

Some remain abroad, where they got their shots, and worry about returning home.

Luca Franzoi took the Sinopharm jab while working in the United Arab Emirates.

When he visited Italy earlier this year, he was unable to get a Green Pass and had to pay for tests to do regular activities, such as going to the cinema.

“I understand the reasons behind the normatives, [but] I feel like my case has not even been taken into consideration,” he said. “I don’t think I’m the only one in this situation: vaccinated but not recognised as one and unable to get vaccinated in my own country.”

Now back in the United Arab Emirates, he wondered what will happen when he comes home for the winter break.

He claimed the government is not helping, having tried twice to contact health authorities in Italy – and yet to receive any response.

“Both times I received an email confirming receipt, telling me that it had been sent to the competent office, and both times I got no further replies.”

Italy has recorded the second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe after the United Kingdom [File: Yara Nardi/Reuters]

‘A breach of fundamental rights’

Others who have tried to find answers said they have met a bureaucratic labyrinth, with local health officials directing them to national hotlines and national governments pointing to continental health agencies.

A source at the European Commission told Al Jazeera that Italy is allowed – although it is not obliged – to recognise vaccines that are not approved by the European Union.

“I think the situation that people in Italy are facing at the moment is basically a choice of Italy to go down this route, and not the choice of the European Union,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a lawyer researching the Green Pass and freedom of movement at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels.

Al Jazeera contacted the Italian health ministry several times for a comment, but at the time of publishing, those requests were unanswered.

“I think that’s a clear breach of fundamental rights,” said Mortera-Martinez, on banning people from entering universities and workplaces.

“But we’ve seen so many breaches of fundamental rights throughout the pandemic,” she added, referencing those who were blocked from entering their countries because they were not vaccinated.

Despite the controversies, legal challenges and protests, more countries are using green passes.

Last month, Slovenia started demanded people use the pass at public venues like hospitals, shopping malls, restaurants, and gas stations, as well as public and private workplaces.

Now, Austria is reportedly considering the measure.

“I can see that this is becoming more and more popular since France broke the taboo,” said Camino, adding that the strategy could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

“This is perfect for authoritarian governments,” she said. “They can say, ‘We haven’t reached enough vaccination, so let’s introduce more measures to control people,’ which is really not a good thing.”

Source: Al Jazeera