COVID-19 vaccine passport for travel: What it is, how it works and who is pushing for them - CNET

COVID-19 vaccine passport for travel: What it is, how it works and who is pushing for them - CNET
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Sarah Tew/CNET
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As COVID-19 vaccination rates creep up and the promise of a post-pandemic future moves from improbable to possible, a new question is emerging: Should countries and the private sector embrace the idea of a digital vaccine passport for travel, working and dining? Though proving you’re vaccinated to travel is not a new concept (think yellow fever), doing so for COVID-19 would be on a far grander scale than ever before.

Advocates say such passports would hasten the return of a “normal” world with travel, sporting events and dancing in packed nightclubs. Skeptics, however, predict they could result in discrimination and fraud, encourage risky behavior when the coronavirus is still raging, and be a privacy minefield. And the logistical challenges in implementing them are immense. 

As the debate continues, here’s what we know, including which countries may be the first to use a passport as proof you got a coronavirus vaccine.

What is a COVID-19 vaccine passport and what would it do?

They don’t fully exist quite yet, but a vaccine passport would be a form of documentation (likely digital) that would allow you to prove to border officials or another gatekeeper that you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The idea behind a vaccine passport is that it would allow a person to resume activities that are now restricted because of the coronavirus pandemic. Regaining the ability to travel freely is getting the most attention in the debate, but that’s not the only proposed benefit. Advocates say they also could let you eat inside a restaurant, enjoy a cocktail in a bar, see a movie, go to the gym and attend concerts, sporting events, theater performances and other events that would put you in close proximity with a lot of other people. Schools could require it, and employers may mandate it for employees hoping to reenter the office.

How would it work?

Despite its name, the vaccine passport wouldn’t be like the little booklet passport you present to immigration officials when you cross an international border. Rather, the concept is for a digital passport that’s part of a mobile app. The app could also allow you to check entry requirements for a country (possibly after uploading your itinerary) and hold the status of your last COVID test and possibly other health information. Some are pushing for a paper version, and while paper vaccination passports for other diseases do exist, a digital version will likely win out (more on that later).

How the app would show your vaccination status is unclear as multiple apps are in development (see next section). A scannable barcode is a likely option. 

How the app would verify your vaccination is another outstanding question. Perhaps you could take a photo of a paper vaccination certificate, but that method opens the door to possible forgery. A better option would be for vaccinated people to receive a digital record, but that would require vaccination sites to keep standardized records and make the data available to passport developers.

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The IATA is developing its Travel Pass for its member airlines. 

IATA

Is there just one version of a vaccination passport in development?

Currently a few businesses and organizations are working to create passports. Here’s a partial list.

One is the International Air Transport Association, a trade group based in Montreal, Canada that represents 290 airlines worldwide. The IATA is developing an app called Travel Pass that would let users upload documentation that proves vaccination status. It also would let passengers check health entry requirements for countries they plan to visit and find COVID testing centers either before they leave on a trip or when why arrive. Eventually, the Travel Pass also could incorporate biometric information like a thumbprint or facial recognition to prove a person’s identity. 

The IATA says 12 airlines including Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and the parent company of British Airways are currently testing Travel Pass. The app should be released later in March, and the organization says airlines would have the option of integrating the data into their own apps.

IBM is developing a Digital Health Pass that would “enable organizations to verify health credentials for employees, customers and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization.” 

Clear, the registered traveler program that allows you to speed through security at US airports, is pushing the Health Pass feature in its app, as well. It recently partnered with The Commons Project Foundation to collect and manage vaccination records. The Commons Project Foundation working with the World Economic Forum also has its own app, CommonPass, which has signed on  United Airlines, Cathay Pacific and JetBlue as initial partners. CommonPass also could link with the iOS and Android health apps.

Other possible apps include the AOKpass, Passport for COVID and Corona Pass.

Now playing: Watch this: When will I get my COVID-19 vaccine?

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Would it be confusing to have several apps?

It could be. One potential problem could be countries and airlines accepting only some apps, forcing travelers to upload their vaccination records multiple times. But we’ll have to see how that plays out.

Which vaccines would qualify? 

That’s unclear at this moment, and it’s something that could get messy if some countries decide to exclude a certain vaccine if they have legitimate concerns about its effectiveness or they’re letting international disputes get in the way.

Is a vaccination passport being used now?

Not yet, at least on a cross-border basis. But Israel, which is leading the world in vaccination rates, has launched a “green passport” that gives holders access to places like gyms, theaters, hotels, concerts and synagogues.

What countries are considering using vaccine passports?

It’s a broad coalition with much of the push now coming from Europe. 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.

On March 1, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the EU would present a legislative proposal this month for a Digital Green Pass that would include proof that a person has been vaccinated. And outside of the EU, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his government is reviewing their use.

China also is advocating for vaccine passports as are tourism-dependent countries like Thailand, Cyprus, Greece, Spain and Aruba.

The US has yet to take a clear stance. On Jan. 21 as part of an executive order aimed at curbing the pandemic, President Joe Biden directed his cabinet to assess the feasibility of linking COVID-19 vaccination to the current International Certificates of Vaccination or Prophylaxis used by the World Health Organization (more on that later). The US already requires a negative COVID test for international travelers. 

But in a briefing on March 9, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the private sector would likely drive any use of passports in the country. “There are lots of ideas that will come from the private sector and nonprofits,” she said. “We welcome those. But our focus from the federal government is on getting more people vaccinated, and that’s where we feel we can use our resources best.”

What countries are holding back?

Even with the EU’s push some member countries like France and Germany aren’t so eager. And around the world, the idea has yet to gain traction in developing countries with less access to the vaccine or with economies not dependent on tourism. 

What does the World Health Organization say?

Though the WHO is exploring how a vaccine passport might work, in a statement on Feb. 5 it said, “At the present time, it is WHO’s position that national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.” The WHO gives more reasons for its stance, which are included below.

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Qantas said it will require international passengers to be vaccinated. 

Kent German/CNET

Is this private sector interested?

Very much so. Airlines, led by the IATA, cruise lines and others in the travel and hospitality industry are big supporters. Qantas, for example, will require visitors to Australia to have a vaccine to fly. Australian borders remain closed at the moment, but given the country’s strict quarantine policy and success in suppressing the pandemic, it’s not surprising.

There is a big incentive for airlines to endorse the idea of a vaccine passport. Keep in mind that airlines are responsible for ensuring passengers have the correct documentation to fly to any country before they board a flight. In a sense, that makes an airline check-in desk the equivalent of a border crossing. And if an airline happens to fly someone to a country they can’t enter because they’re not vaccinated, the carrier is responsible for flying them back home at its own expense.

Cruise lines are motivated to support the use of passports given that cruise ships like the Diamond Princess were large COVID hotspots when the pandemic began and less recently for other diseases like norovirus.

What are the arguments favoring a vaccine passport?

Advocates say there are a few reasons. They could:

  • Bring about a long-awaited return to “normal” life.
  • Encourage people to get the shot, which would reduce COVID-19 transmission.
  • Better protect front-line workers in the medical, travel, hospitality and service industries and everyone else around you.
  • Allow countries to fully reopen their economies. 

The problem, though, is that these reasons aren’t perfectly in line. So, which will be the priority? That’s something we’ll have to decide.

What are the arguments against a vaccine passport?

There are a few critical ones here, as well. 

  • They could result in inequality and discrimination, not just for people in developing countries where the vaccine is less available, but also for young and healthy people in richer countries who may not get their shots for months. 
  • It would also be unfair for communities who are less trustful of vaccines and those who decline the vaccine for religious or cultural reasons.
  • Privacy advocates are concerned about the security of apps that will hold private and critical information about a user’s health. It would be just another app loaded with personal data that could be vulnerable to hacking or misuse. Many app developers counter that they’re securing the apps through blockchain technology, which means the data wouldn’t be stored in one place.
  • As the vaccine does not bring immunity, it could bring a false sense of security and lead to risky behavior and the rise of new COVID variants.
  • It may lead to coercion of vaccines.
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The WHO Yellow Card lists a bearer’s vaccination status. 

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

But some countries require vaccines for other diseases like yellow fever. How is this different?

A vaccination as a requirement to enter a country is not a new concept. The affected diseases include not just yellow fever, but also meningitis and polio. Travelers can record their shots and prove their status with the WHO’s International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (also called a Carte Jaune or Yellow Card), which is a vaccination passport. 

But COVID-19 is different because it’s happening on a vastly wider scale than something like yellow fever. Only a handful of countries, all in equatorial Africa, require a yellow fever vaccination for all travelers. And a set of other countries, like China, Australia, South Africa and Colombia only require it if you’re arriving from a country with a yellow fever risk (the WHO has a comprehensive list of vaccination requirements by country).

Why not use a paper passport?

Advocates say there are a few reasons to go digital. Paper passports would be more subject to forgery, and they’d be more difficult to replace if lost, stolen or damaged. And it’s likely that border officials would be able to check digital passports quicker than they would paper certificates. That would help at busy international airports where multiple flights with hundreds of people each can arrive within minutes of each other.

When could I get one?

There’s no set timetable yet for the introduction or adoption of any kind of vaccine passport. But once a major country starts requiring one and there’s some consensus on how it would work, we’ll likely see some quick traction.

Once I have one, can I stop wearing a mask and social distancing?

No. Social distancing and mask wearing are still absolutely essential for fighting the spread of the virus and protecting the health of you and others. And they’ll remain that way for many months.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.