Immunity or COVID-19 vaccine passports started off as a good idea but it’s turning into a bad logistical nightmare, very fast.
Some countries are going for it with some success, but globally, it is a ‘system malfunction’ that could cause air travel to crash and burn in 2021.
Pilot programs underway for vaccine passports
As some countries around the world start vaccinating their populations against COVID-19, the idea of creating digital “vaccine passports” is gathering pace. Among those leading the way, the Estonian, Hungarian and Icelandic governments have all signed up to pilot a technology that would allow people who have received the jab to prove their health credentials at the scan of a QR code.
Dubbed VaccineGuard, the platform’s goal is to link between various agents, from the vaccine’s point of manufacture all the way to the border guard controlling an individual traveler, to create a system in which reliable information about the immunization process can be shared across myriad different sources and countries.
With VaccineGuard, any time a vaccine is administered, healthcare providers will be required to generate a digital certificate in the form of a QR code, which patients could in turn access via email, through an app, or as a printout. The code will act as a verified proof of vaccination that can be displayed when required for travel, events, or at work.
Blockchain will also allow vaccine manufacturers to create a birth certificate for all products that can be tracked all the way to their point of administration, protecting against counterfeit.
Other companies have jumped on the opportunity to create a digital version of vaccine passports. Microsoft, Salesforce, and Oracle recently joined the Vaccination Credential Initiative (VCI), with the view of developing a technology that will allow people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine to keep a record of their immunization history in a digital “Health Wallet” app on their phones.
In India, the Co-Win app is already at work, providing real-time information about vaccine stocks and individualized tracking of those who have been vaccinated.
Other platforms such as CommonPass have also been developed for individuals to document their COVID-19 status, for example, while they travel.
The problems with vaccine passports
Vaccine passports can only work across borders if there is a certainty that all the providers of immunization certificates are legitimate and trusted.
Without unified standards, even the most cutting-edge technological solutions will fall flat.
The prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine certificate is conjuring up digital-dictatorship fears, according to Bloomberg.
Being able to travel freely again will remain in the realm of the few, and would introduce an unequal society in which an inoculated elite get the freedom to fly long-haul, attend concerts or dine in restaurants.
Doctors have warned that one in four nations will not see any coronavirus vaccinations this year. “The U.S., Canada, U.K. expect widespread vaccinations by the spring,” Acuna-Villaorduna says. “Countries in South America and Africa are way behind that right now. That’s not going to happen for people in those places until 2022 or so.”
The EU has administered doses equivalent to just 1.3% of its population so far and is expected to cover 70% of its adult population only by the summer.
Also, what about those who cannot or will not be vaccinated.
For example, France’s health agency in December advised against the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in some cases for pregnant women or people with extremely severe allergies.
And we don’t even know the full concrete results of vaccine campaigns in terms of immunity.
Doctors agree that vaccine passports could be useful for those who are going to travel and nations that would welcome them back.
Still, the argument against vaccine passports is growing.
There is a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout beginning in many nations, but some governments and companies are signaling that they will require vaccinations of international visitors or future customers.
United Kingdom cruise company Saga announced recently it will require all future guests to be fully inoculated by at least two weeks before their voyage.
Some governments, including those of the Seychelles and Cyprus, have also announced they will reopen their borders and allow international visitors to skip quarantine only if they have received the vaccine.
And the Biden administration issued an order calling for an assessment of international certifications of vaccination that could eventually be recognized by other nations requiring the shots.
An increasing number of health experts and tourism officials are saying vaccine passports should not be made mandatory for international travel any time soon because of the short supply of doses and potential lapses in the level of protection vaccines provide.
Current health measures like testing and quarantines, they say, should stay for vaccinated people. And the World Health Organization recently said that it opposes vaccine requirements for travel because of equity issues in the current state of the global vaccine rollout.
“At the present time, do not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines,” the organization said in a meeting statement recently.
“Proof of vaccination should not exempt international travelers from complying with other travel risk reduction measures.”
The organization’s doctors are warning that a vaccine will not be a cure-all for travelers before there is global herd immunity, which will take years and surely not before the end of 2021.