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Explained: How ‘Vaccine Passports’ Would Work, Benefits & Concerns

Israel has introduced its avatar of a vaccine passport. WHO, however, has advised not to make it mandatory. 

Published
Explainers
5 min read
Israel has introduced its avatar of a vaccine passport. WHO, however, has advised not to make it mandatory. 
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As the mammoth task of COVID-19 vaccination is being carried out, people in India and the rest of the world are hoping life will gradually limp back to normal. The passport to a world as it was before the virus struck is a passport—a ‘vaccine passport’.

Except, it’s not really a passport. Countries around the world, the World Health Organisation, private organisations, and technology companies have been mulling over the idea of a certification system that allows people with proper documentation of vaccination access to travel, leisure activities, gyms, hotels, and workplaces.

The Quint explores the emerging concept around vaccine passports, the arguments in favour of such digitsed systems, the degree of implementation, and readiness as well as the primary concerns.

While a ‘passport’ could be a step towards normalcy, both physically and psychologically, there are of course challenges of a standardised ‘passport’ system, authenticity, privacy, and credibility around an individual’s immunity to the virus.

Explained: How ‘Vaccine Passports’ Would Work, Benefits & Concerns

  1. 1. What is a vaccine passport?

    A vaccine passport isn’t a physical passport but a digital document that serves as a valid certification of an individual’s vaccination against COVID-19. Like a passport, this document will allow people physical access to places, as it would act as a proof of the person being ‘safe’.

    The idea is to come up with verifiable, secure, and credible digitised records of inoculation that will be accepted across countries as well as by entities within India, and enable one to bypass mandatory quarantine requirements.

    Expand
  2. 2. Who is using vaccine passports?

    Israel became the first country to introduce a certification system. The country’s system is designed to allow an individual with the ‘passport’ access to facilities and services such as hotels, restaurants, gyms, and workplaces.

    The primary proponents of this system are the tourism and hospitality sectors who’ve faced the brunt of the pandemic. Thailand, a popular tourism destination, moved a step closer to issuing vaccine certificates, Bloomberg reported. A panel of officials have backed the proposal that is seen as a major milestone towards allowing the tourism-reliant nation to fully reopen to foreign visitors.

    Apart from countries moving to adopt this system, a number of private associations and entities like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing a ‘travel pass’ that will provide airlines and other aviation industry stakeholders with a common platform to check for the proof of vaccination and its validity.

    Moreover, The Commons Project, The World Economic Forum and a broad coalition of about 350 public and private partners are collaborating to launch CommonPass, a trusted, globally-interoperable platform for people to document their COVID-19 status (health declarations /PCR tests/vaccinations) to satisfy country entry requirements, while protecting their health data privacy.

    Expand
  3. 3. How would it work?

    In the case of a scaled-up application like CommonPass, it lets individuals access their lab results and vaccination records, and consent to have that information used to validate their COVID status, without revealing any other underlying personal health information. Lab results and vaccination records can be accessed through existing health data systems, national or local registries or personal digital health records.

    According to its official website, “CommonPass platform assesses whether the individual’s lab test results or vaccination records (i) come from a trusted source, and (ii) satisfy the health screening requirements of the country they want to enter.”

    In Israel, the vaccine passport was released on 21 February, to help the country emerge from a month-long lockdown. “Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their ‘green pass’ when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from COVID-19,” MIT Technology Review states.

    Expand
  4. 4. What are the benefits of such a system?

    Ideally, the presentation of such a digital certificate would allow people to prove themselves to be ‘safe ’and to bypass mandatory quarantine requirements. Essentially, it would serve as a way to loosen current restrictions on travel and access to facilities. It would also relax the requirement in many countries that require arriving passengers to test negative for the virus.

    If a standardised and widely accepted pass emerges, it would eliminate the need to carry physical documentation and grant credibility to the online certification.

    The effects of such a document are also psychological. “People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” MIT Technology Review quotes Nadav Eyal, a prominent Israeli television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”

    Moreover, such a system would also allow people to take printouts and keep physical copies of the certificates with them.

    Expand
  5. 5. What about India?

    While India doesn’t yet have plans for an Israel-like robust vaccine passport system, many are viewing the vaccine certificates as a document that can be used to ease travel restrictions. Several states have mandated COVID-19 negative certificates based on RT-PCR tests for those travelling within India.

    Those receiving the first vaccine jabs in India are currently receiving a provisional certificate and the final certificate is given only after the second dose. Various states are considering the vaccination certificates as a driver of the tourism industry that has suffered major losses in the recent past.

    “The arrival of vaccines is a great relief; those vaccinated will be able to travel more confidently and would definitely lead to a rise in tourist numbers. However, as the vaccine is new, WHO concerns are also justified and is subject to study by medical experts. As of now, there is no provision to make vaccination mandatory for travelling to Rajasthan," Mint quoted Alok Gupta, principal secretary, tourism in the Rajasthan government.

    Expand
  6. 6. What about privacy concerns with vaccine passports?

    Among the foremost concerns around the system of a standardised vaccine passport is the issue of data privacy.

    For example, Israel’s ‘green pass’ reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from COVID-19 or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, says MIT Technology Review citing Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel.

    Moreover, crucially, because Israel’s app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

    There is also a practical concern that a centralised certification app could allow authorities to track the movement of its holders as well as their activities based on the places where the ‘passport’ has been used.
    Expand
  7. 7. Why is WHO against making it mandatory?

    At a press briefing on Monday, 8 March, WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said there are “real practical and ethical considerations” for countries considering using vaccine certification as a condition for travel, adding the UN health agency advises against it for now.

    “Quite simply, vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis,” the Associated Press quoted Ryan as saying. WHO has previously noted that it’s still unknown how long immunity lasts from the numerous licensed COVID-19 vaccines and that data is still being collected.

    Given the limited vaccine supply globally, the primary concern is that it would bar a majority of the world population, including those in India, from traveling or accessing resources and facilities. Moreover, many have expressed concerns that this would create a global elite while exacerbating inequalities for others.

    “Being vaccinated is not something everyone has equal access to,” AP quoted Ryan as stating.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What is a vaccine passport?

A vaccine passport isn’t a physical passport but a digital document that serves as a valid certification of an individual’s vaccination against COVID-19. Like a passport, this document will allow people physical access to places, as it would act as a proof of the person being ‘safe’.

The idea is to come up with verifiable, secure, and credible digitised records of inoculation that will be accepted across countries as well as by entities within India, and enable one to bypass mandatory quarantine requirements.

Who is using vaccine passports?

Israel became the first country to introduce a certification system. The country’s system is designed to allow an individual with the ‘passport’ access to facilities and services such as hotels, restaurants, gyms, and workplaces.

The primary proponents of this system are the tourism and hospitality sectors who’ve faced the brunt of the pandemic. Thailand, a popular tourism destination, moved a step closer to issuing vaccine certificates, Bloomberg reported. A panel of officials have backed the proposal that is seen as a major milestone towards allowing the tourism-reliant nation to fully reopen to foreign visitors.

Apart from countries moving to adopt this system, a number of private associations and entities like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing a ‘travel pass’ that will provide airlines and other aviation industry stakeholders with a common platform to check for the proof of vaccination and its validity.

Moreover, The Commons Project, The World Economic Forum and a broad coalition of about 350 public and private partners are collaborating to launch CommonPass, a trusted, globally-interoperable platform for people to document their COVID-19 status (health declarations /PCR tests/vaccinations) to satisfy country entry requirements, while protecting their health data privacy.

ADVERTISEMENT

How would it work?

In the case of a scaled-up application like CommonPass, it lets individuals access their lab results and vaccination records, and consent to have that information used to validate their COVID status, without revealing any other underlying personal health information. Lab results and vaccination records can be accessed through existing health data systems, national or local registries or personal digital health records.

According to its official website, “CommonPass platform assesses whether the individual’s lab test results or vaccination records (i) come from a trusted source, and (ii) satisfy the health screening requirements of the country they want to enter.”

In Israel, the vaccine passport was released on 21 February, to help the country emerge from a month-long lockdown. “Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their ‘green pass’ when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from COVID-19,” MIT Technology Review states.

ADVERTISEMENT

What are the benefits of such a system?

Ideally, the presentation of such a digital certificate would allow people to prove themselves to be ‘safe ’and to bypass mandatory quarantine requirements. Essentially, it would serve as a way to loosen current restrictions on travel and access to facilities. It would also relax the requirement in many countries that require arriving passengers to test negative for the virus.

If a standardised and widely accepted pass emerges, it would eliminate the need to carry physical documentation and grant credibility to the online certification.

The effects of such a document are also psychological. “People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” MIT Technology Review quotes Nadav Eyal, a prominent Israeli television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”

Moreover, such a system would also allow people to take printouts and keep physical copies of the certificates with them.

ADVERTISEMENT

What about India?

While India doesn’t yet have plans for an Israel-like robust vaccine passport system, many are viewing the vaccine certificates as a document that can be used to ease travel restrictions. Several states have mandated COVID-19 negative certificates based on RT-PCR tests for those travelling within India.

Those receiving the first vaccine jabs in India are currently receiving a provisional certificate and the final certificate is given only after the second dose. Various states are considering the vaccination certificates as a driver of the tourism industry that has suffered major losses in the recent past.

“The arrival of vaccines is a great relief; those vaccinated will be able to travel more confidently and would definitely lead to a rise in tourist numbers. However, as the vaccine is new, WHO concerns are also justified and is subject to study by medical experts. As of now, there is no provision to make vaccination mandatory for travelling to Rajasthan," Mint quoted Alok Gupta, principal secretary, tourism in the Rajasthan government.

ADVERTISEMENT

What about privacy concerns with vaccine passports?

Among the foremost concerns around the system of a standardised vaccine passport is the issue of data privacy.

For example, Israel’s ‘green pass’ reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from COVID-19 or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, says MIT Technology Review citing Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel.

Moreover, crucially, because Israel’s app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

There is also a practical concern that a centralised certification app could allow authorities to track the movement of its holders as well as their activities based on the places where the ‘passport’ has been used.
ADVERTISEMENT

Why is WHO against making it mandatory?

At a press briefing on Monday, 8 March, WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said there are “real practical and ethical considerations” for countries considering using vaccine certification as a condition for travel, adding the UN health agency advises against it for now.

“Quite simply, vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis,” the Associated Press quoted Ryan as saying. WHO has previously noted that it’s still unknown how long immunity lasts from the numerous licensed COVID-19 vaccines and that data is still being collected.

Given the limited vaccine supply globally, the primary concern is that it would bar a majority of the world population, including those in India, from traveling or accessing resources and facilities. Moreover, many have expressed concerns that this would create a global elite while exacerbating inequalities for others.

“Being vaccinated is not something everyone has equal access to,” AP quoted Ryan as stating.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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