Vaccine Passports: What They Are and What You Need to Know
This post, originally published in February 2021, has been updated to reflect new information and details regarding vaccine passports.
As our world continues to evolve around the COVID-19 pandemic, a new term has entered our lexicon: vaccine passports. With more and more people receiving the vaccine, the reality of a larger-scale reopening inches closer on the horizon. How will this impact international travel? Will vaccinated citizens from one country be able to enter another without completing a strict quarantine?
We've put together this brief primer on vaccine passports so you can learn the basis and get informed. Of course, this is just the beginning of a long journey that is sure to include changes, modifications, and unforeseen hiccups. No matter what, remember that if you do plan to travel – don't forget to wear your mask and respect all recommendations and guidelines along the way.
Vaccine Passports in Context
U.S. President Joe Biden didn't waste any time after taking office earlier this year, working to activate a multi-prong approach to control the COVID-19 pandemic. One of his first executive orders requested government agencies to "assess the feasibility" of connecting vaccination certificates with other relevant documentation, and then developing digitized versions.
Thanks to the recent announcement that the European Union will allow entry fully to vaccinated travelers, the push for definition on the ins and outs of digital vaccine certifications is top of mind across the globe.
In Europe, Denmark’s government recently announced that the roll-out of a digital passport that allows citizens to demonstrate they have been vaccinated will be ready in three or four months.
This isn't limited to governments, however. Airlines are also dipping their toes in the realm of vaccine passports. For example, Etihad Airways and Emirates will soon start using a digital travel pass which was developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The airline was also the first global carrier to fully vaccinate 100% of its on-board crew.
The IATA Travel Pass will help passengers manage their respective travel plans while providing both airlines and governments with the documentation necessary to prove they've been either vaccinated against or tested for COVID-19. This will take the form of a mobile app and all information will be available through QR code.
In February, American Airlines announced the launch of its own health passport, called the VeriFLY App, when traveling from American's U.S. airports to eight countries. AA partner British Airways will also use the VeriFLY App for flights from London to the U.S.
What is a Vaccine Passport?
The term vaccine passport refers to a unified way of storing and organizing relevant immunization records that could be required for international travel. In the current context, this takes the shape of a mobile app or at least a digital version of said paperwork, but it's not always the case. It's also important to remember that we're a ways off from a universal, one-size-fits-all approach that works seamlessly across all countries and airlines. The shift toward relevant vaccine passports is going to be a long-term process.
For example, since vaccines vary from country to country — and the new COVID-19 vaccines are no exception when it comes to immunology — proving that a person is 100% immunized or with zero risk of contagion/infection is not necessarily an easy task.
The concept of a health or vaccine pass can also be applied to non-travel situations, such as sporting events, live concerts or shows, and other large gatherings of people.
When – and why – would I need a Vaccine Passport?
To travel across international borders, government authorities might require proof of immunization against certain viruses or illnesses. During the pandemic, airlines and governments alike require a negative PCR test or a valid doctor's note confirming the passenger was sick with COVID-19 and has since recovered.
The benefit of something like vaccine passports would make it easier and more streamlined for passengers to share this information with relevant authorities and hopefully bypass lengthy (and expensive) quarantine protocols. Given that travelers are supposed to foot the bill for those lengthy hotel stays, removing this obstacle would do wonders for the international tourism industry.
Is a Vaccine Passport a new concept?
Not at all. Vaccine passports have been around in some form or another since the 1800s. The most recent and relevant example is that of the yellow fever vaccine. Several African countries require proof of immunization in order to enter from abroad; travelers literally receive a "yellow card" (known to the CDC as an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis) after getting the vaccine to present at the airport.
However, the big difference is how this information is stored, archived, and distributed. The digital component is essential to rolling out a legitimate and effective system of vaccine passports today. While it's not a requirement for them to be 100% digital, it would make the process easier on the whole, and lead to both faster and higher rates of adoption among travelers everywhere. It also adds an extra layer of security and privacy, given that the sale of fake negative COVID-19 tests has reportedly been on the rise across the EU.
How is my information stored on a Vaccine Passport?
For now, given that there isn't one universal system, it depends on each product's specific approach. For example, the CommonPass, which is linked to 300 health systems, gives users the chance to log-in to their health provider's site within the app. In turn, the app lets the traveler know what diagnostic tests and/or immunization records they need and generates a QR code that can be scanned by authorities.
The IATA Travel Pass allows authorized labs and centers to share test results and vaccine certificates with passengers, which are stored on each individual's phone and can be displayed to authorities through a mobile-generated QR code.
Are there any downsides to Vaccine Passports?
It's imperative to build ethical, sustainable, and inclusive technology that is as intersectional as possible. As first published in the New York Times, "In a world where more than a billion people aren’t able to prove their identity because they lack passports, birth certificates, driver’s licenses or national identification cards, digital documents that show vaccine status may heighten inequality and risk, leaving many people behind."
At the very least, for travelers without smartphones, there will need to be a universally accepted paper version of a vaccine passport or health certificate. Additionally, concerns about data privacy and sharing are completely valid. Experts warn against companies or governments monopolizing the process and development, urging for transparency and accessibility along every step of the way.
One final friendly reminder 😉
Though we've all started 2021 with renewed hope and optimism, it's important to remember that we still have a long way to go. Even if you're vaccinated, that doesn't mean you can stop wearing a mask or following other social distancing measures while you're out and about. We need to remain patient as the research rolls in from scientists and experts about the long-term efficacy of the different vaccines, as well as if or how vaccinated people can transmit the virus to others.
We're all chomping at the bit to get back into the swing of travel, and we will get there. The immerse effort that scientists, researchers, healthcare workers, and governments have put into fighting the pandemic and working together to develop innovative solutions is nothing short of incredible. While you're now able to remove your passport for safekeeping in hopes of planning future travel, it's important to remain cautious and flexible on all fronts.