May , 2021
COVID-19 Vaccine Passport : Is this the next big thing?
19:45 pm

Sovik Mukherjee



With millions of people being vaccinated against COVID-19 every day, some political and business leaders are proposing that countries help restore normalcy by implementing a vaccine passport : an easily accessible and verifiable certification that an individual has been inoculated. Many countries and airlines now demand evidence that foreign travellers are not infected with SARS-CoV-2, but regulations differ by country, and there is currently no universally accepted document for vaccination. The idea behind a vaccine passport is to produce an improved version of the “yellow card”, formally known as the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (vaccine against yellow fever), a World Health Organization approved booklet documenting your past inoculations. Given COVID-19's widespread prevalence and contagiousness, many are advocating for a more modern, digital and safe record.

What is happening around the globe?

With a hope of rescuing the tourism season, Israel was the first to issue “The Green Pass” within the country in February 2021, capitalising on its high vaccination rate while most countries are yet to issue such passports. Some European countries like Estonia (has a VaccineGuard) and Iceland have expressed interest in following the same. The African Union (AU) are developing a “My Covid Pass” to allow safe border crossing across the continent. 

US President Joe Biden has directed federal agencies to look into the possibilities. Some airlines, as well as tourism-dependent destinations, anticipate requiring them. Like, Saga Cruises, based in the United Kingdom, is now asking passengers to show evidence of vaccination before boarding. In March, Aruba and JetBlue began allowing passengers from the United States to show a negative test using CommonPass, developed by the Commons Project, a Swiss-based nonprofit, with support from the World Economic Forum. Lufthansa passengers flying into the United States can also use it. New York began offering downloads of the “Excelsior Pass” app in March. It verifies whether someone is fully vaccinated or has recently tested negative. The pass generates a QR code that can be scanned to produce a green checkmark or a red cross. Those without compatible phones also have the option to print out their codes. However, only people vaccinated or tested in New York state can use it.

Last month, Singapore Airlines became the first carrier to make limited use of Travel Pass for people flying between Singapore and London, and will put it into wide use in May 2021. Alan Joyce, the CEO of Australian airline Qantas Airways Ltd., has confirmed that foreign travellers entering or leaving Australia would be required to show evidence of vaccination. With the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, India has not come up with something like a vaccine passport.

Interestingly, the Chinese government has announced it will only admit travellers who can prove they received Chinese-made vaccines. However, since such formulations have not been accepted by the United States or the European Union, the passport acts as a de facto ban for travellers from those countries — or a subtle boost to the desirability of the Chinese vaccines, which China has been offering to governments around the world.

Who all are involved in developing vaccine passports?

The trade group for global airlines, the International Air Transport Association, is testing a variant it calls Travel Pass. Another, called a Digital Health Pass, is being developed by IBM. There are several other private-sector initiatives that have been rolled out across the globe. With financial support from Innovate U.K., technology companies Mvine and iProov have begun live-testing of COVID-19 immunity and vaccination passport designed to be compatible with United Kingdom’s tiered approach to managing the health crisis where different parts of the country are under varying levels of restrictions given the severity of the pandemic. The World Economic Forum and the Commons Project, alongside the Rockefeller Foundation, say they have convened more than 350 public and private sector leaders from fifty two (52) countries to create a technology platform called CommonPass that aims to give people a safe and verifiable way to document their health status when travelling and crossing borders. As already mentioned, this is being used by some airlines like Aruba and JetBlue in the US; the Israeli government is offering a “The Green Pass” for those who have been vaccinated and this might be extended to cover for international travel in the days to come.

Way Forward

The division of the world between vaccinated and unvaccinated people raises difficult political and ethical questions. Vaccines are disproportionately distributed to wealthy nations and affluent racial groups within them. Giving vaccinated people some special privilege while tightening restrictions on unvaccinated people risks widening already existing dangerous social divides that the pandemic made so evident. Not only that, vaccine passports risk worsening discrimination based on race, nationality or access to smartphones, since many of the proposed applications require one, and could raise serious privacy concerns. 

The European Union (EU) is expected to introduce a certificate called a Digital Green Pass in June 2021, with the aim of allowing people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus to travel more freely. Every nation in the bloc could determine which travel restrictions, such as mandatory quarantine, to waive for Digital Green holders under the proposed rules. Many countries, like Denmark, claim they can't wait for the Digital Green Pass to be rolled out and are working on their own versions. Deliberations are likely to be drawn out, with tourism-dependent Greece pushing for an EU-wide scheme and Germany heading a coalition of countries urging a go-slow approach. This next big flashpoint over the coronavirus response has already sparked protests in the United Kingdom, protests in Denmark, United States and diplomatic hostility within the European Union.  

WHO is currently against making the vaccination passport mandatory. The primary concern, given the limited vaccine supply globally, is that it will prevent the majority of the world's population, including those in India, from travelling or accessing resources and facilities. Moreover, many have expressed concerns that this would create a global elite while exacerbating inequalities for others.

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