Governments, Stakeholders Mull ‘Vaccine Passport’

by Olamilekan Okeowo

Governments and critical stakeholders in the aviation industry are mulling digital documentation that will show that passengers have been vaccinated or tested for the coronavirus.

Some of the governments include the United States and Denmark while Etihad Airways and Emirates will in a few weeks start using a digital travel pass, developed by the International Air Transport Association, IATA.

The vaccination pass or passport is documentation proving that a traveller has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Some versions will also allow people to show that they have tested negative for the virus, and therefore can more easily travel. The versions being worked on now by airlines, industry groups, nonprofits, and technology companies will be something travellers can pull up on their mobile phones as an app or part of their digital wallet.

One of President Joe Biden’s executive orders aimed at curbing the pandemic asks government agencies to “assess the feasibility” of linking coronavirus vaccine certificates with other vaccination documents and producing digital versions of them.

Denmark’s government on its part said last Wednesday that in the next three to four months, it would roll out a digital passport that will allow citizens to show they have been vaccinated.

IATA, one of several organizations that have been working on digital solutions to streamline the travel credentialing process for years; during the pandemic, these groups have focused on including vaccination status. The idea is that if you have all the pertinent information on your phone, a significant amount of time will be saved.

“It’s about trying to digitize a process that happens now and make it into something that allows for more harmony and ease, making it easier for people to travel between countries without having to pull out different papers for different countries and different documents at different checkpoints,” said Nick Careen, senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security at IATA who has been at the forefront of IATA’s travel pass initiative.

In addition to I.A.T.A., IBM has been developing its own Digital Health Pass that would enable individuals to present proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain access to a public location, such as a sports stadium, airplane, university, or workplace. The pass, built on IBM’s blockchain technology, can utilize multiple data types, including temperature checks, virus exposure notifications, test results, and vaccine status. The World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss nonprofit group, have been testing a digital health passport called CommonPass, which would allow travelers to access testing or vaccination information. The pass would generate a QR code that could be shown to authorities.

Proponents of the Vaccine passport stressed that many countries are already requiring proof of a negative test for entry which could be essential to the restart of tourism.

“In order to travel internationally, government and health authorities will need to know if you have been vaccinated or have tested negative for the virus. Many countries are already requiring proof of a negative test for entry. Such passes could be essential to restarting the tourism industry”, said Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

“One key element vital for the restart of tourism is consistency and harmonization of rules and protocols regarding international travel,” he said in an email. “Evidence of vaccination, for example, through the coordinated introduction of what may be called ‘health passports’ can offer this. They can also eliminate the need for quarantine on arrival, a policy which is also standing in the way of the return of international tourism.”

On her part, Dakota Gruener, Executive Director of ID2020, a global public-private partnership, said that there are three scenarios regarding digital credentialing for the coronavirus response. The first, which is largely off the table, is the creation of immunity certificates. These are documents that would show that people have developed some kind of immunity to the virus. The second scenario is being able to prove you’ve tested negative for the virus; the third is being able to show that you have been vaccinated. The last two scenarios, experts agree, are the most important for getting the travel industry going again.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from airlines, airline industry groups, customs, and border control agencies and travelers, all saying, ‘how do I safely get on a plane or as a condition of entry into a country, get on a train, whatever the case may be, and prove that I have been tested or vaccinated?’” Ms. Gruener said.

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