Vaccine Passports Promise Safer Travel; Privacy Issues Remain

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For frequent world travelers, the concept of needing a passport is nothing new. And in fact, a “vaccination passport,” proof that a person has been immunized against an infectious disease such that they can travel, is also not a new concept invented for the age of COVID-19. People who want to travel to certain African nations, for example, must first prove at customs they’ve already been inoculated against yellow fever.

But before 2021 the need to build a vaccine passport for any kind of global travel to be used for anyone going anywhere — that is an entirely new situation, created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an issue that carries a lot of baggage and serious questions as the first rounds of vaccines are going out in the U.S. and around the world.

In the first place, while “vaccine passport” is the term used most often, it is itself a bit misleading. While some of the uses will be based around travel and international travel in specific, as the MIT Technology Review notes, in the current conversation, health record-based authorization is expanding into places it’s never been used before. Records could also act as work authorization, or a pass to get into restaurants, bars, and shopping malls and other public places likely to draw crowds.

According to MIT, health passport proponents argue that digital health credentials could help us get back to “normal” faster.

And those passports are under construction now by a variety of players. IBM, The Commons Project, the COVID-19 Credentials Initiative, and the International Air Transport Association’s IATA travel pass are all attempting to create a system by which consumer vaccination data can be easily passed on via a secure, private and tamper-proof method.

“Built on IBM Blockchain technology, [the IBM Health Pass] solution is designed to enable organizations to verify health credentials for employees, customers and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization,” IBM noted on its site about its health pass project.

“On one level, [the CommonPass] is an app that lets you collect, manage, and share your health information on a private level. On another level, it’s a global trust network,” Thomas Crampton, chief marketing and communications officer for The Commons Project, told Travel and Leisure. “You have the ability for a government in one country to trust the test results from an entity in another country.”

How much freedom those vaccine passports will be able to offer individuals, however, is still being defined by government and private agencies. The vaccines were tested for how well they prevented disease and were released to the general public on that basis. What there has been far less testing of is whether the vaccine effectively stops patients from spreading the disease asymptomatically. Nor is it known if all three vaccines currently in the market have the same effects in this regard. As a result, a vaccine passport is a proof of inoculation, not immunity from ever catching or spreading the disease. Some nations like Israel hold vaccines as a standard by which inoculated patients can travel, dine in restaurants and attend events. Others, like the U.K., have officially paused their vaccine passport programs for the time being until more data is known.

There are also concerns that the vaccine passport technology may not be accessible enough to certain populations — such as the elderly and the homeless — to be truly useful. Proponents of vaccines, on the other hand, note that while there may be some minor accessibility issues (given that over 80 percent of American adults have smartphones), digital vaccine verification is far more secure and tamper-proof than paper alternatives. According to reports, there is already a very healthy black market in fake test results that is diminishing trust in printed records and driving demand for cheat-proof digital documents, which digital record are billed as.

Many of the health app/verification app tests underway by governments and private entities are pursuing “health pass” apps, which let users ask participating labs and health systems to send authenticated test results directly to the app, to circumvent verification concerns.

But some complain it is an unreasonable demand on consumers to make them carry sensitive health information in their phones from a privacy standpoint.

But the biggest hurdle health apps may face may ultimately be simply logistics. Collecting vaccination data is a good deal more complex than linking up systems to get testing data. The latter requires making deals with some large testing companies. The former requires connecting any systems across borders, across languages, databases and privacy laws. And while that is possible in nations with centralized national health systems like the U.K., it is increasingly becoming a concern that building something similar in the U.S. will be challenging as patient data is fragmented in tens of thousands of healthcare businesses. And though most vaccinations are captured in state or local registries, using those databases for digital verification has more than a few serious legal and technological limits at present.

Still, experts agree that as vaccinations roll out on a wider basis, the corresponding drops in COVID-19 cases and fatalities will start to move the needle back toward normalcy regardless of whether COVID-19 vaccine passports are ever fully realized to their full technological potential. The progress, they note, won’t be fast, and casual travel to exotic destinations unknown may still be some time off — but it will be on the way presently.

“I think it will help — it’s the first step,” Daniel Burnham, an operations specialist with Scott’s Cheap Flights, told Travel + Leisure “But it will be a while before you can say casually you’re going to go on a weekend trip to Europe.”

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