The travel industry has been dawdling for over a year—the U.S lost $147.2 billion in tourism revenue in the first 10 months of 2020. Businesses that depend on tourist dollars were counting on vaccines to solve their problems, and health passports gave hope to countries that were hard hit because of restricted travel movement. Now vaccine passports, or proof of vaccination, are fast becoming a reality.
Denmark may be among the first countries in the world to formally adopt a vaccine passport. Finance Minister Morten Boedskov told Associated Press, “It will be the extra passport that you will be able to have on your mobile phone that documents that you have been vaccinated.” Sweden, too, is working on the technology that will help its citizens travel abroad, and it is slated to be launched by June. Israel, on the other hand, has already launched Green Pass that offers exclusive benefits (access to gyms, hotels, theatres, etc.) to those who have been vaccinated, but international travel is not included yet.
Many countries, including the Seychelles, Romania, Georgia, and Estonia, are allowing citizens who can offer proof of vaccination to enter with fewer restrictions (like exemption from mandatory quarantine). The U.K. is also considering vaccine passports. It already offers a vaccination card to those who get the shot, but it may introduce the proof on the NHS app—but there’s an online petition against vaccine passports, and the matter will be reviewed by the MPs this month.
Meanwhile, the German Ethics Council has advised against vaccine passports, arguing that they would be discriminatory. France also expressed that it’s too early to discuss it, but Greece—which depends heavily on tourism—has been pushing to adopt vaccine passports. Spain, Austria, and Cyprus are in favor, too. The European Union will propose a plan this month to its member countries to offer a “digital green pass” that will allow freedom to travel, hoping that this will help summer travel to pick up and show better results than 2020.
“Many countries and the entire travel ecosystem are hanging on by a thread, so all initiatives should be welcomed but should also carry a global standard and a global distribution by either airports or airlines.”
In the private sector, airlines in the U.S. are already trying out CommonPass, an app by non-profit the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum.
In October last year, executives from the Internova Travel Group tested the efficiency of the CommonPass app on a flight from London to New York. The United Airlines flight required them to download the app, take the COVID-19 test, and a negative result generated a QR code that let them board. The CommonPass framework works with both COVID-19 test results and vaccination records.
Peter Vlitas, Senior Vice President of Airline Relations at Internova Travel Group, said, “Many countries and the entire travel ecosystem are hanging on by a thread, so all initiatives should be welcomed but should also carry a global standard and a global distribution by either airports or airlines.”
The IATA Travel Pass by the International Air Transport Association (representing 290 airlines worldwide) is also in development, set to be launched by the end of March. IBM has also come up with the Digital Health Pass solution that’s now being tested by the state of New York.
The global acceptance of vaccine passports indicates that there will be some form of these used in the coming months to enable recovery, open economies, and get people moving again. From boarding flights to entering restaurants to attending events and concerts, these apps might become ubiquitous in society. But they can be a veritable triumph only if they make travel equitable, safe, inclusive, and convenient.
Causes for Concern
The argument against digital passports is layered. It takes into account the ethics of such measures as well as fallouts from data breaches and hasty adoption.
There are 7.8 billion people in the world and as of March 5, 279 million doses have been administered. Even after vaccination, people may still spread the virus, so they may offer a false sense of security. Even the World Health Organization has advised against them, stating, “there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission. In addition, considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travelers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease.”
Experts argue that vaccine passports, in any form, might make travel inequitable. Adoption of these digital passports can perpetuate discrimination and inequality, increasing the divide between socioeconomic groups.
Rich countries that have already bought millions of doses from pharmaceutical companies are ahead in the race. The poorer nations may have to wait for months, if not years, to start inoculations. This means that if vaccine passports become a norm, then these lower-income nations will lose out on the advantage.
According to Dr. Lisa Eckenwiler, ethics expert and philosophy professor at George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the idea of vaccine passports may appear to offer benefits to public health, but it may benefit the privileged and add to the burden of the poor and those not on priority lists. “It is certainly not fair, given the inequitable access globally to vaccines and also the infrastructure and technology needed to produce and distribute them.”
It is established that there’s a racial inequality in vaccine distribution in the U.S.—those who are suffering the most from the pandemic are the ones who are getting inoculated at a slower rate.
Even in nations that have begun vaccination drives, those who don’t qualify for it yet (younger population), those who can’t get it for medical reasons (breastfeeding or pregnant women and people with allergies), or those who don’t want to (for religious or personal reasons), will not enjoy the same rights as others. “Even domestically, more generally, if certifications come to be required or even favored to allow access to goods and services, it poses risks of discrimination against those who will be vaccinated more slowly or who can’t get vaccinated at all,” Dr. Eckenwiler said.
It is established that there’s a racial inequality in vaccine distribution in the U.S.—those who are suffering the most from the pandemic are the ones who are getting inoculated at a slower rate. This disparity is a glaring example of an ethical problem that vaccine passports need to tackle.
We’re living in a world with unfettered government surveillance and misuse of private data. Privacy policies are often generic and companies don’t tell you what data they’re storing and for how long. This data can be sold to third parties or given to government authorities without your knowledge.
So, how medical information will be used and stored—and by whom—is a logical question in this fight for the right to privacy. Data protection should be a concern, especially due to the risks of data thefts.
Greg Land, IBM Global Industry Leader, Aviation, Hospitality, and Travel Related Services, pointed out that the blockchain technology of IBM’s Digital Health Pass helps protect an individual’s personal information. He explained, “Once a vaccine is administered to an individual, the individual is issued a verifiable health credential that is only included in that individual’s encrypted digital wallet on their smartphone. Individuals control what they share, with whom, and for what purpose.”
Airlines and hotels won’t have access to personal health data, he added. “Instead of viewing an individual’s personal health records, with IBM Digital Health Pass, these companies would receive ‘green light’ or ‘red light’ to verify an individual has provided an authenticated negative test result or vaccination record.”
Even the IATA Travel Pass uses blockchain technology, so data isn’t stored centrally where it can be targeted by hackers. The encrypted information (test results and vaccination reports) is stored on the phone and a user can choose to share it with airlines or immigration.
Transparency in how apps are using data and who they’re sharing it with, and tougher policies by the government may assuage some fears, but skeptics’ distrust of the system, both government institutions and private players, might be pivotal when it comes to the adoption of these apps. These apps will also need to have robust data centers safeguarded from cyberattacks.
The bottom line is that this is no quick-fix and there might not be a size that fits all.
There are a lot of questions remaining. Which app—there are so many in development and countries are coming up with their own vaccine passports? Which vaccine—different ones are approved around the world? Paper or completely app-based or both—paper may be faked but app-based will eliminate those who don’t have smartphones?
Both IBM and IATA have promised paper-based solutions for those who don’t have access to a smartphone. IBM’s platform can be used on a computer to print a QR code with health data, so smartphones are not pre-requisites. Plus, users can host QR codes on someone else’s device, which is useful for parents.
As for seamless integration into airlines, hotels, and public systems, IBM is confident that its app, based on open technologies, will be able to offer collaboration. Land assured, “Digital Health Pass can easily be integrated into existing apps to provide a more streamlined passenger/consumer experience, as well as simplify check-in and boarding procedures.”
IATA has also envisioned a global solution with its app that can complement other platforms. The IATA Travel Pass has four open and interoperable modules, the website explains, that can be used individually, or as an end-to-end solution. The idea is for users to check travel/vaccine requirements for a country, find testing centers and labs, provide test results and vaccination proofs, while governments and airlines should be able to use the app to confirm this information. The lab app will help authorized labs and test centers to issue certificates.
Of course, adoption largely depends on consumers and how they perceive new technology, and it just may be too technical or sophisticated to make a mark on the world. Plus, every country would want to come up with its own solution.
“Travelers will need to do their research to make sure they follow all of the requirements, as some may have an electronic passport that the destination country will not accept.”
The bottom line is that this is no quick-fix and there might not be a size that fits all. Vlitas agreed that setting global standards will be a major challenge. According to him, there will be a mixed bag of entry requirements for travelers, from PCR testing on arrival to electronic proof of a vaccine. “Travelers will need to do their research to make sure they follow all of the requirements, as some may have an electronic passport that the destination country will not accept.”
Will you be using vaccine passports to travel this summer (if things get better)? It is certainly a possibility, but the potential risks can’t be denied or underestimated.