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Illustration by Security Management

Governments Around the World Contemplate Vaccine Passports

More than 24 travel- and business-related organizations sent a letter to the Biden administration asking it provide guidance on developing health credentials that can be used as proof of negative COVID-19 tests and vaccination status, Reuters reports.

The letter says the administration needs “to proactively develop a roadmap for the rollout of recommended travel documentations and build a system supporting [COVID-19 health credentials] that verify both testing and vaccination records.”

The administration has not responded publicly; however, yesterday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance on activities for people who have been fully vaccinated. The guidance remains cautious, saying vaccinated people may visit one household of unvaccinated people indoors without anyone needing a mask—as long as the unvaccinated are not at increased risk from COVID-19. As for travel, the guidance succinctly says “At this time, CDC is not updating our travel recommendations and requirements.” And that guidance boils down to “avoid travel.”

The idea of health credentials, which many organizations and news outlets refer to as vaccine passports, has been building momentum. In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a position statement on vaccine passports that recommended not introducing requirements of "proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel" as a condition of departure or entry.

"In addition, considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travelers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease," the WHO said. "WHO also recommends that people who are vaccinated should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures."

The WHO does have a Smart Vaccination Certificate Working Group, which is charged with informing “the development of specifications and guidance for using digital technologies for documenting vaccination status.” In fact, the letter from the U.S. travel groups to the Biden administration references the WHO working group in its plea for the administration to act quickly.

The Royal Society, a scientific organization based in the United Kingdom, released Twelve Criteria for the Development and Use of COVID-19 Vaccine Passports on 14 February. 

“Current evidence suggests that a COVID-19 vaccine passport system is feasible, but that not all criteria have yet been satisfied and consideration should be given to what longer term precedents (e.g., commercial accessibility of registers, expanded state health surveillance) this may create,” the Royal Society said. 

These warnings and cautions, however, have not slowed the momentum. Israel, one of the leading nations in terms of vaccination, is easing restrictions on gyms, hotels, and other venues, using what has been dubbed the “green pass.” The pass is a QR code issued by the Israeli Health Ministry detailing vaccination status. But there are reports that the green passes are easily faked.

China announced it has developed a vaccine passport for its citizens, and said it plans to be part of a shared vaccine passport recognition program when one is developed. The European Union has also said it plans to develop a similar credential, though it may be some time before it is launched.

While much of the emphasis of the vaccine passport is on travel, a sector that has been decimated by the pandemic, the potential utility of the passports is far reaching. Sports arenas, museums, and concert venues are obvious candidates for their use.

Screening customers at other types of businesses may be more fraught with complications. Should a casino require them? A restaurant? How about a grocery store? And the biggie: Should, or even can, employers require them? Scientific American attempts to address the ethical issues that vaccine passports present. How to assess vaccination is still the secondary question for employers. There are contrary opinions on whether or not companies can require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine, with some saying they can and others saying they cannot.

With vaccine predicted to be widely available in United States in the spring and the EU and many other countries by this summer, how society resumes travel, entertainment, office work, and various other activities—and the tools it uses to get there—will continue to unfold.