As nations prepare to open borders to international travellers, anticipating deeper global vaccination reach and a subsiding virus, the idea of COVID vaccine passport is gaining ground.
Governments are expecting travellers to provide proof of vaccination or a COVID negative report, before letting them in. The question is what will that proof be and how can technology assist or not assist in easing the process.
The world is opening up, but with caution
The world, especially the US, has been on the forefront of opening up economic and social activities after nearly 50% of its population received at least one COVID vaccine dose. The European Union (EU) too has decided it will allow vaccinated people to travel inside member countries. As a result, not just travel, but other economic activities like eating out, recreation, sporting events too have restarted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) of US has gone to the extent of saying that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks and can venture out with ease.
The threat of COVID reappearing is palpable though, which has made the authorities in these countries to put a mechanism in place to check people for their vaccination and infection status.
As a step in this direction, US Federal officials have made it mandatory for US-bound international travelers to show proof of a negative COVID test result to board flights.
The US Department of Homeland Security stated that it does not want passengers’ COVID test results, but would expect airlines to bring up a check-up mechanism.
With the responsibility of checking passengers’ health records passed on to them, airlines companies, in turn, are asking passengers to upload health documents online.
Most governments the world over are issuing certificates to vaccinated people. Airlines won’t expect their staffers to have another traveler document to check. Therefore, such digitized health documents, which can be scanned easily, would come in handy.
Digital health apps
Some airlines and surprisingly even governments have tied up with digital health apps to provide vaccine passports or digital health passports. More such services are likely to be made available in the days to come as the world opens up international travel.
Such apps can maintain health information of a traveller with details of latest and past COVID test results and even vaccination status. Israel and Denmark have been on the forefront of using such a technology and have made apps available to their citizens. Other countries may imitate them.
The US is likely to give recognition to digital health records in order to ease travel restrictions and give a boost to travel, leisure and airline industry, which have been badly hampered by the pandemic since early 2020. The Biden administration will, in all probability, hand over the task of preparing digital health credentials to the private sector because it does not intend to maintain a database of vaccination records.
Will a digital passport become mandatory and permanent?
May not be in the short run, but some European countries like Greece and Iceland already ask passengers to submit proof of vaccination or proof of a recent negative COVID -19 test. At this point of time, digital health certificates are not compulsory.
Iceland’s communications director Sveinn Gudmarsson told CNBC that either physical certificates or electronic copies would be allowed. “Border control will evaluate whether a certificate is valid and will consult a representative of the Chief Epidemiologist [health care worker] as needed,” he said.
Though digital health passports look necessary right now, governments and airlines hope this necessity does not become a permanent feature of international travel.
Who makes digital passports?
IBM has developed one for New York State’s Excelsior Pass, which was tested at a New York Nets game in February. The app displays a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ sign and not the actual test result.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents 300 airlines worldwide, has developed its own digital health passport. Singapore was the first to accept COVID test results on that platform.
JetBlue Airways have declared a digital health passport called ‘Common Pass’.
United Airlines recently said it would expand its own app to allow travelers to book COVID-19 test appointments online.
The European Union and Israel too are in the process of making their own digital health certificates.
Security and equality concerns
Since governments are not keen on maintaining digital health records of passengers, concerns have been raised about the safety of customers’ data will third-party health apps. Besides, it may start fresh debate on equality, because such digital passposts mainly work on individuals’ smartphones.
The World Health Organization (WHO) too said it is against requiring proof of a vaccine to enter another country “given the limited (although growing) evidence about the performance of vaccines in reducing transmission and the persistent inequity in the global vaccine distribution.”