The use of digital vaccine credentials, often referred to as vaccine passports, may increase as more people begin to travel during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. But concerns remain regarding the credential’s data protection, data transfer among immunization registries and limited freedom of movement for those who do not have access to vaccinations.
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), users would need to download an application to their mobile device then create an account that would be linked to the user’s COVID-19 vaccination record from an immunization registry or test result from a certified laboratory. This application would provide the user with information about their destination’s entry requirements, like which vaccines or tests are accepted by that country.
Some opportunities that are presented with the implementation of digital vaccine credentials are the efficiency and safety of processing large numbers of people at airports, further reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and thereby restoring traveler confidence.
“If designed and implemented properly, a digital credential could be more difficult to falsify than a paper vaccine card,” GAO said. “A digital credential links a person’s identity to verified COVID-19 vaccine or test information, whereas a paper vaccine card does not generally provide the same digital linkage.”
However, GAO noted a “lack of clear standards” for the use of such credentials, which could possibly undermine the security of a user’s personal health data, potentially limiting the acceptance of the credentials. Another challenge would be the data transfer between several immunization registries, testing laboratories and other parties. Digital vaccine credentials could also of course exclude individuals who have not had access to a vaccine yet, which may present some legal challenges.
“Widespread use of digital credentials may exacerbate inequalities or constrain freedom of movement for those who do not have access to vaccines, cannot be vaccinated for health or age reasons, or do not own a mobile device,” GAO said.
The European Union (EU) has a similar program in place for travel, the EU Digital COVID Certificate. According to the official EU certificate site, the certificate serves as proof of vaccination against COVID-19, a negative test result or a full recovery from the virus. The user has the option for a digital or paper version of their certificate with a QR code that acts as a digital signature as a form of protection against falsification.
The certificate only contains necessary information like the user’s name, date of birth, date of certificate issuance, relevant information about vaccination, testing or recovery and a unique identifier, the EU site said. Furthermore, the data cannot be retained by visited countries. All health data remains with the Member State that issued the EU Digital COVID Certificate.
In the United States, individual states, such as New York, have introduced similar initiatives although these have so far focused mainly on local access to events and dining establishments. California has a voluntary vaccine record portal. But these are the exception rather than the rule among U.S. states with only Hawaii trialing a Safe Travels card for vaccine verification when traveling. Many other states have even gone so far to ban mandatory use of digital vaccine credentials.
President Biden has said that he does not expect to introduce a nationwide app for a digital credential pass, instead leaving it to individual states. A fragmented approach may work well in some areas, such as New York state’s focus on entertainment access, but a nationwide standard would arguably be more effective where travel is concerned. It would also of course be far more contentious and Biden’s administration is already facing challenges when it comes to building trust in the vaccines, which is the primary concern.
Homeland Security Today recently reported on the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) call for states to follow new guidance made by the World Health Organization (WHO) that recommends a “risk-based approach” to travel measures during the pandemic.
This new guidance from WHO recommends that governments do not require proof of vaccination as a mandatory condition for entry to or exit from a country. WHO also recommends that testing and quarantine requirements be lifted for travelers who are fully vaccinated or were previously infected within the last six months and are no longer infectious.
“This approach should consider the risk posed by travel for the importation and exportation of cases in the context of the evolving epidemiology, including the emergence and circulation of virus variants of concern; the expansion of the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out; and lessons learned while responding to the pandemic, including on the early detection and management of cases and the application of public health and social measures,” WHO said.
Of course, it is important for air travelers to feel safe in order for passenger numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels so countries and airlines may decide that a harder line is needed, regardless of WHO’s guidance. There’s also the issue of individual countries being nervous about the spread of variants from outside their borders, which is another reason they may choose to use vaccination proof as a requirement for travel.