By Marisa Valentino
A vaccine passport, or digital health pass, is the next big thing in Covid-19 related news. This digital documentation will show if an individual has been vaccinated against Covid-19, and allows them to travel internationally without quarantine.
The concept of a vaccine passport is nothing new. In prior decades, travelers needed to show tangible “yellow cards” to verify they had been vaccinated against diseases like cholera, yellow fever, and rubella to enter some countries. Those vaccinated would receive a “yellow card” that was signed and stamped. These cards were officially named International Certificates of Vaccination or Prophylaxis. Travelers are still encouraged to take these cards with them on certain trips by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the digitalization of the vaccine passport is a modern development.
Governments and travel agencies alike are advocating for the vaccine passport. A recent executive order from President Biden has agencies exploring the logistics of creating a digital version of vaccination documents. Denmark’s government is also looking into this possibility. Over the next three to four months, it plans to make vaccine passports available to its citizens. Recently, Israel became the first country to begin using the digital health pass.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has created a digital travel pass to be used by airline companies like Etihad Airways and Emirates over the next few weeks. The IATA app will allow passengers to “to store and manage certifications for COVID-19 tests or vaccines,” said the IATA website. IMB, The Commons Project, and The World Economic Forum are also developing their own virtual vaccine passport.
“As these things get rolled out, it’s important for citizens to ask governments and airlines: How do we make this easy so I have one vaccination record to book a flight, a hotel, and so I can use that to do some other things,” said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Linux Foundation Public Health, in an interview with the New York Times. “It should work like email. If it doesn’t, agitate for it.”
Despite the advertised convenience of having the vaccine passport right on your phone, the process of creating a system to accommodate them will be challenging. Although producing a short-term solution involving one-use applications can be done quickly, creating a lasting ethical system that does not store a person’s data or track them will take time.
The new virtual platform for the vaccine passport has already posed concerns about security, privacy, and obtainability. The European Union’s law enforcement agency will be creating a secure digital pass to prevent the use of fake vaccination documentation and fake negative test results. The agency noted that the sale of fake negative Covid-19 test results is an increasing issue. In terms of privacy, some are concerned about the app getting hacked, exposing their digitized medical records. As far as obtainability goes, the vaccine passport’s virtual platform will not be accessible to those without smartphones. However, a paper option will likely be available.
Digital vaccine passports also pose serious ethical questions. Thus far, rich countries and privileged racial groups have received significantly more vaccines than other countries or groups. The digital health pass would provide privileges to the vaccinated and, as a result, widen social and geographical gaps.