By Shaan Katari Libby
This pandemic has brought with it a new set of words/ terms that we never used before: “Social distancing” “flattening the curve”, and more recently, “vaccine passports”. What is a vaccine passport? Well, despite the normal conclusion one draws from the word “passport”, this is not just for international travel. It is a certificate given to an individual who has been vaccinated against a virus these could be a stamp or even a digital document on a smartphone to prove the person is “safe”. Such a mobile app with a barcode will show a person’s vaccination status, possibly check entry requirements for a country and hold information on your last Covid-19 test and other health information.
Over the longer term, rather like the passports of today, these would function as verifiable, accepted, credible digitised records of inoculation that will be accepted across countries and enable one to bypass quarantine requirements. It would also provide a record of whether people have natural immunity after having been ill with Covid-19. Such a document could become mandatory for more than just travel; everywhere from cinemas to malls, supermarkets or restaurants could require them before permitting entry to customers. This idea has drawn criticism for scientific shortcomings and the fact that two classes would evolve. There are also serious concerns about data protection.
Why are vaccine passports desirable? Put simply, they are a way of reopening the economy by identifying those protected against the coronavirus. They could make it easier to reduce social distancing and allow international travel. They could help large public events to resume. A requirement for such a pass would encourage people to take the jab, and in turn, reduce Covid-19 transmission, protection of health workers, those in travel or hospitality and everyone in general. Travel for both business and pleasure could resume. Concerns about fraud have been assuaged as this could link identification to vaccine record. In India, this would be Aaadhar to vaccine record. The vaccine record would automatically give a link to the vaccine provider and so if there’s any suspicion, the airport can contact them.
There are several countries and organisations considering their use or already using them. Israel, the world leader in vaccination rates, has launched a “green passport” that gives the holders access to gyms, hotels, concerts and synagogues. WHO, however, has advised not to make it mandatory. China has also unveiled its digital vaccine passport for residents who have received their Covid-19 vaccines. The passport is accessed by scanning a QR code on an app. Once they present their digital passport, Chinese residents have the freedom to travel in and out of the country.
The European Commission has created the Digital Green Certificate, which among the public is already known as a vaccine certificate or vaccine passport, in order to facilitate travel for EU citizens and residents throughout the bloc. Through the document, the European Union intends to encourage the member states to remove restrictions on free movement for those holding such passports who will be vaccinated persons and those who have recovered recently from the virus. “When travelling, every Digital Green Certificate holder will have the same rights as citizens of the visited member state who have been vaccinated, tested or recovered,” the EU Commission explains. While the member states will still be able to continue to oblige arrivals from other EU countries to quarantine or test, they must notify and justify these measures to the Commission and all other member states.
The certificates will contain a unique machine readable QR code to securely verify the authenticity of the certificate as well as a digital signature. Whenever the certificate holder is required to present it, the QR code will be scanned and the signature verified.
The verification will be made possible through a gateway built by the EU Commission. This gateway will not pass the personal data of the certificate holder. Outside of the EU, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his government is reviewing their use. Biometrics companies have built a vaccine pass now being tested within Britain’s National Health Service after receiving UK government funding. Denmark and Sweden have both said they will develop vaccine passports for travel, and Estonia is working with the World Health Organization on a solution. Denmark announced a new digital corona passport in February to be rolled out soon. Popular tourist destinations like Greece, Spain and Cyprus are eager, as well. New York state has announced an app called Excelsior Pass, which shows your vaccination proof or the results of a negative Covid-19 test.
With a trans-Tasman bubble in place, Air New Zealand has already confirmed it will trial the IATA Travel Pass on its Auckland to Sydney route next month. The head of Australia’s largest airline said that once a coronavirus vaccine becomes widely available, it may require passengers to use it before they can travel abroad, and has been talking to his counterparts at other airlines around the world about the possibility of a vaccination passport for overseas travellers.
A vaccinated individual will have significant freedoms from Covid-19 safety protocols. They will no longer have to go into isolation after travelling to a country with a high infection rate or if they were to come in contact with an infected person. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global aviation body, will soon launch its digital travel pass, and is being adopted by a number of international airlines, including Etihad Airways and Emirates. The information through the IATA Travel Pass can be shared with border authorities requiring testing or proof of vaccination as a condition of international travel during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a secure means to manage health requirements, much more efficient than paper processes. IATA says 23 airlines, including Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are currently testing Travel Pass. IBM is developing a Digital Health Pass, which would “enable organisations to verify health credentials for employees, customers and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization”.
The US White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: “Development of a vaccine passport, or whatever you want to call it, will be driven by the private sector.” She said the administration does plan to provide recommendations for digital vaccination certificates so there are applicable standards nationwide. President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, told Politico that the federal government won’t mandate vaccine passports for businesses or travellers. The US is strongly divided on the notion of requiring vaccination. The governors of Texas, Florida and Arizona have announced executive orders to curtail the use of vaccine passports, or any form of documentation of Covid-19 vaccinations. They have argued that it violates privacy and civil rights. While the Biden administration has said it won’t build a national vaccination app, private companies are racing to create digital “passports” that show proof of immunisation.
What are the concerns? The notion of proving vaccination is not new. Yellow fever vaccines for Africa and South America have been required for years, and some schools require vaccination for entry. Covid- 19 vaccination could be more complicated as it would be a frequent vaccine as things appear now, not just one offs, and skeptics predict discrimination and fraud, along with privacy issues. First, while vaccine supply remains limited, privileged people will gain early access. Second, even after supply constraints ease, rates of vaccination among racial minorities and low-income populations are likely to remain. Another continuing concern is the emergence of more virulent strains of the virus such as the UK, South African and Brazilian, and now Indian mutations and whether vaccines will in fact be able to offer adequate protection. If not, this whole effort is in vain. Also, as the vaccine doesn’t bring total immunity, it could bring a false sense of security and lead to risky behaviour and the rise of new Covid-19 variants.
Critics feel the use of vaccine passports could be discriminatory against those who have not taken the Covid-19 jab for lack of access or their religious/cultural concerns about being vaccinated. Those who are vaccinated will be able to lead relatively normal lives, while the non-vaccinated citizens will face restrictions. A WHO position paper stated that vaccinating international travellers could be prioritised over sending Covid-19 vaccine doses for poorer countries. However, privacy concerns remain with data security activists pointing out that the digital certificates can even be used by authorities to track the movement of their holders.
We in India are facing a fresh wave of the virus and are on the red list of several countries, including the UK and the US which would mean up to two weeks of quarantine. The Indian government does not yet have concrete plans for a vaccine passport system, but ad hoc vaccine certificates as travel documents are in use. Several states have mandated Covid-19 negative certificates based on RT-PCR tests for those travelling within India. Those receiving the first vaccine jabs in India are currently receiving a provisional certificate and the final certificate is given only after the second dose. Various states are considering the vaccination certificates as a driver of the badly-hit tourism sector. Senior airline officials are hoping that with this documentation from accredited laboratories at airports, some sense of normalcy can return. IATA is in talks with leading Indian airlines to sign them up for its digital health pass. A global survey by Amadeus Lab said 93 percent of Indian travellers will be willing to use a digital health passport for all trips. India’s largest domestic airline, IndiGo, is currently engaged with IATA for a travel pass.
All in all, based on all the articles and research currently available, one does feel that a passport is sensible and reassuring for all concerned and would help ease the pressure the world is feeling. The main concern is that everyone is currently doing their own strategy and there is no apparent coordination apart from the EU and Australia/New Zealand. This lack of standardisation would be a significant burden with some apps requesting more information than others, some airlines accepting only certain apps, thereby forcing travellers to upload their vaccination records multiple times. Also, requiring people who decline vaccination to bear some consequence for their refusal is fair. They are in effect putting herd immunity out of reach.
The hope is that vaccine passports would at long last bring about a return to normal life.
—The author is a barrister-at-law, Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, UK, and a leading advocate in Chennai. With research assistance from Jumanah Kader