With the uphill battle against the coronavirus and its economic consequences, the most severe of which being felt by the travel industry, there is an ever increased talk of a new tool called the Vaccine Passport. Such a document would prove that the individual carrying the passport has been vaccinated against Covid-19. Some versions could also allow people to show that they have tested negative for the virus, and therefore simplify travel procedures. Proposed versions could be a displayed document on your smartphone, a specialized app, or as part of a digital wallet.
This is not an entirely new concept. For many years, people traveling to certain locations, mainly in tropical regions, have been required to show that they have been vaccinated against diseases such as yellow fever, rubella and cholera. This was done through a “yellow card” known as the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis.
Several countries have recently shown more and more interest in exploring the idea of a Vaccine Passport in depth. Authorities in Denmark have indicated the wish to roll out a digital passport that would show whether the carrying citizen has been vaccinated or not. The government of President Biden is also interested in the possibility of linking information related to coronavirus vaccine certificates with other vaccination documents.
In commercial aviation, Etihad Airways and Emirates will start using a digital travel pass, developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), to help passengers manage their travel plans. The digital travel pass will also serve as proof that the carriers have been vaccinated or tested for Covid-19. For its part, Qantas announced in late 2020 that proof of vaccination would be required to board any of their international flights.
One of the current challenges is to create a document or app that is accepted worldwide, that it compatible with diverse databases and systems, that it protects citizens’ privacy, and that is accessible to people of any background or social strata.
Commercial aviation is one of the sectors most interested in pushing the idea forward because, with all the relevant information available on a smartphone, a lot of time would be saved. Technology companies such as IBM have been working on a new project called Digital Health Pass. The tool would let individuals show proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain access to a concert hall, a sports stadium, an airplane, among other places where several people gather. The pass collects multiple types of information such as temperature checks, virus exposure notifications, test results and vaccine status.
For their part, the World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss nonprofit group, have been working on their version of a digital health passport called CommonPass. This tool would would allow travelers to access testing or vaccination information. Users could generate a QR code when prompted by authorities.
These days, several countries are requiring proof of a negative test before entry. Such passes could be essential to restarting the tourism industry, said Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, UNWTO.
“One key element vital for the restart of tourism is consistency and harmonization of rules and protocols regarding international travel,” he said. “Evidence of vaccination, for example, through the coordinated introduction of what may be called ‘health passports’ can offer this. They can also eliminate the need for quarantine on arrival, a policy which is also standing in the way of the return of international tourism.”
Pololikashvili’s enthusiasm, however, has not been entirely welcomed by the World Health Organization, which stated that “Being vaccinated should not exempt international travelers from other measures to reduce the risk of traveling.”
Other arguments presented include the fact that digital documents showing vaccine status may heighten inequality and risk, because more than a billion people aren’t able to prove their identity. This may leave many people behind.
Health experts have noted that there are currently three scenarios:
- The creation of immunity certificates. Such documents would show that the holder’s body has developed immunity to the virus.
- A proof showing that the document holder has tested negative for the virus
- A proof showing that the document holder vaccinated.
Alternatives two and three are the ones most gaining most traction, specially to reignite the ailing travel industry.
For people without access to a smartphone, the travel and tourism industry says it will accept a paper version. Still, there are several aspects that need to be standardized for it to work properly. The concerns that keep surfacing are those linked to privacy and data sharing.
Privacy legal experts have noted that the development of these tools must be done openly so that it no government or company can feel tempted to misuse it. The technology in question ought be open source and accessible to technologists, no matter who they are or where they live.