'Ethical, safe?': Why are vaccine passports becoming a matter of concern

Gayatri Vinayak
·5-min read
Digital International Certificate of Covid-19 Vaccination. The certificate indicates that the holder has been vaccinated against Coronavirus Covid-19. There is a coffee cup and  laptop computer in the background.
Digital International Certificate of Covid-19 Vaccination. The certificate indicates that the holder has been vaccinated against Coronavirus Covid-19. There is a coffee cup and laptop computer in the background.

More than a year has passed since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, drastically restricting mobility and resulting in huge economic and social implications. With summer setting in, though, countries the world over, are figuring out means to open up their economies and enable greater mobility, while ensuring their population is safe.

Enter the vaccine passport – a document that is being received with equal measures of anticipation and criticism. Some Governments and sectors that have been most affected by the pandemic, especially travel, hospitality and events, are driving the push for making vaccinations, and vaccine passports, compulsory.

What is a vaccine passport?

A vaccine passport is a certificate issued to an individual which confirms that the person has been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. The vaccination data would either be available through an app or as a stamped physical document that the user can show while crossing borders, or entering into any establishment.

Such a passport will enable patrons to travel freely, visit public places such as cinema halls, swimming pools, malls, or even eat at a restaurant. Most countries, such as India, already allow users to download a vaccination certificate to prove that they have been inoculated against the virus.

The vaccine passport is similar to WHO’s International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, or the Yellow Card, which is required for entry to certain countries where there is a risk of contracting a particular virus. Till the pandemic, yellow fever was the most common vaccine required for entry into countries.

The immunity to travel

Israel, which has got nearly 60 per cent of its 9 million population vaccinated with at least one dose, has rolled out an app that contains a mobile inoculation certificate that allows people to visit bars, attend music concerts, hotels, gyms, swimming pools and other public places, after their second shot. People who get vaccinated can show their green pass wherever they are asked.

The European Union is also proposing rolling out a Digital Green Certificate that will enable those who are already inoculated or have the antibodies after contracting the virus, to travel freely. Most tourism destinations in Europe, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, have suffered due to movement restrictions brought on by the pandemic, and are awaiting such measures to help revive their economy. Sweden, which gone the unconventional way of not enforcing any lockdowns, and relying on herd immunity, and Denmark are also planning to introduce vaccine passports to enable ease of travel, this summer.

China, which opened its borders recently to foreigners who take Chinese shots, launched a passport for its citizens who have received their shots. The passport, which is accessed by scanning a QR code through an app, will allow people to travel freely into and within the country. The Kingdom of Bahrain has also recently updated its BeAware app, which started off as a tracing app mandatory for people in self-isolation or quarantine, to act as a digital vaccine passport.

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Not just the government, but organisations and companies are also developing vaccine passports. The International Air Travel Association (IATA), has launched the IATA Travel Pass, which allows users to store testing and vaccination proofs, enabling travellers to store their details securely in one place. Individual airlines have started trialling the Pass on their flights – passengers travelling Singapore to London on Singapore Airlines were able to test the pilot of the app, while Qatar Airways trailed such a digital passport providing inoculation details on its Doha to Istanbul flight.

Similarly, the World Economic Forum (WEF), Rockefeller Foundation and The Commons Project have proposed a digital platform called CommonPass which will allow individuals to access their lab results and vaccination records and show that those records satisfy the health screening requirements of their destinations. Since no Government is involved in its development, the Pass is being proposed as a neutral, private and flexible option.

Ethical, safety and scientific concerns

Critics of the move cite security as a major concern associated with such a passport. Data security experts worry about details from the vaccine being tracked by authorities. With Israel’s app, there have also been concerns about it showing more information than it is supposed to, including the date of vaccine and date of recovery from the virus. MIT Technology Review quotes Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel argues that the outdated encryption technology makes the app vulnerable to hackers. Further, since the app is not open source, Dunkelman says that third-party experts cannot vet whether these concerns are founded.

Scientifically, with newer mutants of the virus emerging, and data of the efficacy levels of vaccines, still limited, experts worry that it may be too early to make such passports compulsory.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also said that it will not back such a document for ethical reasons. At a press briefing, WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said that since enough vaccines are not available around the world, on an equitable basis, such a passport would bar a large percentage of people from being able to travel. This would further exacerbate inequalities among people, especially in a scenario where a billion people still do not have access to basic identity documents.

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