COVID vaccine passports will be a part of international travel

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Passengers line up at the American Airlines counter in Ronald Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, DC, amid the pandemic.


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As COVID-19 vaccination rates ramp up, Americans eager to put the coronavirus pandemic behind them are traveling again in big numbers. In the process, a new question is emerging: Should governments and the private sector embrace the idea of a digital vaccine passport for international travel? Advocates say such passports, which would be a form of documentation (likely digital) that would allow you to prove to border officials or another gatekeeper, would hasten the return of a “normal” world by making vacations and business trips abroad possible again. But the idea is not without controversy.

Proving you’re vaccinated to travel abroad isn’t a new concept — some countries have required yellow fever vaccines for years — but doing so for COVID-19 would be on a far grander scale than ever before and would present immense logistical challenges. Passport skeptics also predict they could result in discrimination and fraud, encourage risky behavior in the face of new coronavirus variants, and be a privacy minefield.

Before too long, though, proving your coronavirus vaccination status (or maybe just a negative COVID-19 test) will likely be key to globetrotting again. Some countries, most of them with economies dependent on tourism, are pushing ahead either with real vaccine passport plans or allowing vaccinated visitors to skip quarantine requirements for entry. The private sector, most notably cruise lines and airlines, is also eagerly climbing aboard. As the debate continues, here’s what we know.

This story has been updated with new information.


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How would a COVID-19 vaccine passport work?

Despite its name, the vaccine passport likely wouldn’t be like the little booklet you present to immigration officials when you cross an international border. Rather, the most probable concept is a mobile app with a scannable barcode that shows your vaccination status. 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 maybe other health information. For people without smartphones, some proponents are pushing for an alternative paper version. Multiple apps are currently in development (see next section).

The app could verify your vaccination a few ways. Perhaps you could take a photo of a paper vaccination certificate, but that method opens the door to possible forgery. A better option would link apps to databases that hold vaccination records. In the US, that data is held not at the federal level, but by individual states.

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 that represents 290 airlines worldwide. The IATA is developing an app called Travel Pass that would let users upload documentation to prove vaccination status. It would also allow passengers to check health entry requirements for countries they plan to visit and find COVID testing centers — either before they leave for a trip or upon arrival. Eventually, the Travel Pass could incorporate biometric information, such as a thumbprint or facial recognition, to prove a person’s identity. 

The IATA says 23 airlines, including Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and the parent company of British Airways, are currently testing Travel Pass. The organization says airlines would have the option of integrating the data into their own apps. IBM is developing Digital Health Pass, which 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 its own app’s Health Pass feature. 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. that could link with the iOS and Android health apps. I’ll discuss which airlines are using CommonPass a bit later.

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

iata-travel-pass

The IATA is developing Travel Pass for its member airlines. 


IATA

Won’t it be confusing to have several apps?

A lack of standardization would be a burden for everyone. Some apps, for example, could request more information than others or could work in different ways. Another potential problem could be countries and airlines accepting only some apps, forcing travelers to upload their vaccination records multiple times. We’ll have to see how that plays out, but it could be one avenue for governments to step in and sort out the mess (more on that later).

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 vaccine that’s not approved for use within their own borders. The European Union has already said as much, which I’ll discuss later.

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. New York state has announced an app called Excelsior Pass, which shows your vaccination proof or the results of a negative COVID-19 test (you must also show a photo ID). 

Which 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. Popular tourist destinations like Greece, Spain and Cyprus are eager, as well.

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 a person has been vaccinated, has received a negative test result or has recovered from COVID-19. Two weeks later on March 17, the European Commission released a proposal (PDF) for resuming free travel within the bloc for EU citizens and residents with Green Passes. There will likely be some restrictions: The EU hasn’t yet approved Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines for use, and vaccinated people from other countries would still be barred from entry. The Green Pass could be ready by June.

Outside of the EU, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his government is reviewing their use. China and Japan are also advocating for vaccine passports, as are other tourism-dependent countries like Thailand and Aruba.

Keep in mind, though, that many countries remain closed to international visitors. Removing those barriers will be a completely separate issue.

What has the US government said?

As part of a Jan. 21 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 WHO (more on that later). It’s clear, though, that there will be no national mandate for using them.

In a briefing on March 9, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the private sector would likely drive domestic use of vaccine passports. “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.” On April 6, Psaki said, “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.” 

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, echoed those comments in a March 29 briefing. “We view this as something that the private sector is doing and will do,” he said. “What’s important to us — and we’re leading an interagency process right now to go through these details — are that some important criteria be met with these credentials.” That criteria includes equitable access to the passports (such as for people who don’t own smartphones) and securing the privacy of user information.

Have any places already changed entry requirements for vaccinated travelers?

Yes. Iceland was one of the first countries to allow vaccinated visitors to skip testing and quarantine requirements. It’s been joined by a handful of other countries including Belize, Croatia, Ecuador, Estonia, Guatemala, Montenegro and Seychelles. That list will expand.

In the US, Hawaii is developing a program that will allow travelers who have been vaccinated to skip COVID-19 testing or quarantine. 

Does the US require a COVID vaccination for tourists?

Though the US already requires a negative COVID test to enter the country, it does currently not require a COVID vaccination. Visitors to the US and returning US residents are not required to be vaccinated against anything, though immigrants must be inoculated for 14 other diseases.

Where is the pushback coming from?

In the US, vaccine passports have already emerged as a partisan issue — with Republican elected officials in particular decrying any use in domestic settings as a violation of personal freedoms. One of the loudest critics has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued an executive order April 2 banning businesses and government agencies in the state from requiring vaccination passports. But that order may run afoul of the cruise industry, a powerful force in the Florida tourism sector (see below section about the private sector).

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 Feb. 5 statement 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.” WHO gives more reasons for its stance, which are included below.

Are cruise lines interested?

Very much so. Cruise lines are motivated to support the use of vaccine passports given that cruise ships like the Diamond Princess were major coronavirus hotspots when the pandemic began (and less recently for other diseases like norovirus). 

“Cruise ships had a very, very difficult problem to solve,” said Terry Jones, the founder of Kayak and Travelocity and a former CIO of American Airlines. “And they’re a small microcosm of a lot of people. And so to get people to feel safe again, it simply makes sense.”

Royal Caribbean announced on March 1 that it will resume sailing from Israel and that all passengers 16 years and older will have to be vaccinated. It also has announced upcoming cruises from Cyprus and the Bahamas will be open only to vaccinated crew and passengers. It’s not a stretch to assume that such a mandate will be enforced across all of the company’s ships. 

That’s the case with Norwegian Cruise Lines, which announced April 6 that all passengers booked on cruises through Oct. 31 will need to be vaccinated. Other cruise lines have followed with varying requirements of their own, including Cunard, Celebrity, Princess, Seabourn and Viking. Keep in mind, though, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still setting requirements for cruise lines to begin sailing from the US. At present, a vaccination requirement for passengers is not among them.

qantas-a380

Qantas said it will require international passengers to be vaccinated. 


Kent German/CNET

What about airlines?

Airlines, led by the IATA, cruise lines and others in the travel and hospitality industries are big supporters. Qantas, for example, will require visitors to Australia to have a vaccine to fly. Given the country’s strict quarantine policy and success in suppressing the pandemic, it’s not surprising. The CEO of Qatar Airways has also said he supports the idea. Among the airlines using CommonPass on a trial basis for select flights are United, Cathay Pacific and JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International and Virgin Atlantic.

There is a big incentive for airlines to endorse the idea of a vaccine passport for international flights. Keep in mind that airlines are responsible for ensuring passengers have the correct documentation to fly to any country before boarding 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. 

Terry Jones said it’s unlikely that could happen for domestic flights, though that could change (see video). “The President ruled that flights must have masks. So, there could be some of that going on,” he said. “I think it simply makes sense.”

What are the arguments in favor of a vaccine passport?

Advocates say 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 prioritized? 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 for richer countries that have been slower to inoculate their residents. Consider that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced April 11 that his government was abandoning plans to vaccinate all Australians by the end of the year.
  • 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, critical information about a user’s health. It would be yet 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 doesn’t bring total immunity, it could bring a false sense of security and lead to risky behavior and the rise of new COVID-19 variants.
  • If used for everyday activities, it may lead to coercion of vaccines. 

If I’m not vaccinated, could I get by with a negative COVID test result?

Possibly. That would be the case with the EU’s Green Pass. But we’ll have to wait and see whether other countries or businesses adopt such a policy.

who-yellow-card

The WHO Yellow Card lists a bearer’s vaccination status. 


Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

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 vaccination status with the WHO’s International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (also called a Carte Jaune or Yellow Card) [PDF], which is a vaccine passport. Or as Jones put it, “This is simply a digital representation of that time-worn idea.”

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 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. It’s also 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.

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 yourself 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.

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