Irish abroad with Chinese vaccine want hotel quarantine exemption

Vaccine approved by WHO but not EMA, and immunologist warns of variants like Delta

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has been asked to consider reviewing travel restrictions that require Irish citizens who have received non-European-approved vaccines to enter mandatory hotel quarantine (MHQ).

Thousands of ex-pat Irish workers, including teachers, nurses and construction workers, are likely to have received vaccines such as those produced in China that are recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but not approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Minister of State for Diaspora Colm Brophy said the Department of Foreign Affairs has been receiving increasing numbers of representations on the issue both directly and through TDs. He has written to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly with a request to review the current policy.

“[The Chinese vaccine] has been approved by the WHO, it’s on par with western vaccines and the rollout on an international level is in the same millions as the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical companies that we are using,” he said.


Return to Ireland

Those returning to Ireland with a non-EMA-approved vaccine must undergo 10 days of MHQ. Vaccines authorised for use by the EMA include those produced by Pfizer, Janssen, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

The issue was raised at a recent Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee by Fine Gael TD David Stanton who had been approached by teachers working in the Middle East.

“I think in terms of reopening travel and movement, we are going to have to recognise vaccines that the WHO recognises,” Mr Brophy said. “I don’t think we should put an unnecessary roadblock in their way.”

He said there was no way of ascertaining exactly how many Irish expats have received such vaccinations.

The Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

Trinity College Dublin immunologist Prof Kingston Mills said the issue is complicated by emerging variants of concern, notably the Delta strain, and from where someone is travelling.

Consistency of batch

He noted there had been "breakthrough cases" of infection in India where the AstraZeneca and Bharet Biotech-produced vaccines have been used. Regarding the two Chinese versions, he said little is known about how they would deal with the Delta variant.

“These are unknowns that would make you worry,” he said. The Russian Sputnik vaccine, while effective, had raised questions about the consistency of batch production, he said.

Rejecting Mr Brophy’s support of universal vaccine acceptance in terms of international travel restrictions, Prof Mills said it was not a question of WHO versus EMA.

“Would you be happy travelling to a country where the Delta variant is now dominant and where you have had one vaccine that’s 33 per cent effective and two doses that’s 60 per cent effective?” he asked. “If you are exposed,you would have a four in 10 chance of getting infected.”

Middle-East teacher: ‘This hotel quarantine is just not affordable’

Like thousands of Irish ex-pats before him, teacher Eoin Robinson was drawn to the Middle East by the prospect of tax-free income and the opportunity to save for a mortgage deposit.

And, like many others, his ability to visit home has been hit hard by Covid-19.

Now there is another problem.

Despite being fully vaccinated with the Chinese-produced Sinopharm and having clocked up about 27 PCR tests in the last year in line with his school regulations in Abu Dhabi, Robinson (30) faces long and expensive hotel quarantine on his arrival home.

“The majority of people got [the Chinese vaccine] here and, to my knowledge, there has been no problems with it,” he says. “The medical facilities over here are world-class.”

He returned home just once during the pandemic but, at that stage, he only had to adhere to home quarantine, something he was and remains happy to do. The cost of the hotel, at almost €2,000, is prohibitive to many young ex-pats.

“There is a lot of Irish people out here trying to make headway on a [home] deposit which is so elusive. My head is in the deposit objective; to come home, get a house and prepare for the future,” he said.

“I don’t mind home quarantine, I understand that, but this hotel quarantine is just not affordable. I am PCR-tested to the maximum. I practise good social distancing in my daily life. I don’t really know how much more I can offer.”

Many others feel the same way, he says, and are caught between the need to return and the difficulties they face in doing so.

“You need to come home, you have to come home,” he says. “Just to feel the rain again.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times