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Vaccine passports: what are they and who needs them?

With the acceleration of Covid-19 vaccinations, attention is turning to tools that allow people to prove they have been vaccinated and potentially bypass the stifling restrictions used to fight the pandemic.

Although the idea is meeting some resistance over privacy and fairness concerns, several types of coronavirus vaccination records, sometimes referred to as “vaccine passports”, already exist, in both paper and digital form. Hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with new electronic versions, and the number is increasing every day, although so far their use has been very limited.

Portable vaccination registers are an old idea: Travelers in many parts of the world, children who enroll in school and some health workers have long had to provide them to prove they have been vaccinated against diseases. .

But vaccine passports use digital tools that take the concept to new levels of sophistication, and experts predict that electronic verification will soon become mainstream, especially for international air travel, but also for admission to crowded spaces. like theaters.

Here are some of the main questions asked.

Typically people use the term to refer to an electronic vaccination record, possibly in the form of a QR code, which is easily accessed via a smartphone or possibly stored on the device, although it can also be printed.

In its simplest form, the documentation is something like the physical card created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and typically given to people when they receive their first Covid-19 vaccine in the United States, or the “carton. yellow ”from the World Health Organization, used for decades by travelers to show their inoculation against diseases like yellow fever. But these are on paper, filled out by hand, and quite vulnerable to forgery.

The tool may need to address several variables: the duration of inoculation is unclear, there may be bad batches, and the emergence of new virus variants will likely require new vaccines. Thus, in the long term, an electronic record may need to indicate what specific vaccine a person has received, from what lot, and when.

More than a dozen competing versions are already under development and promotion.

In the short term, the clearest application may be in international travel, and the reason is evident at all major airports: passenger volume is at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, but there are huge queues of passengers. ‘waiting at airline counters and passport control.

Many countries already require proof of a recent, negative coronavirus test for entry. Until now, this documentation has existed almost entirely on paper or on the passenger’s phone, and must be confirmed by human eyes at the airport, so check-in for a flight online, or even at an electronic terminal in the terminal. , is finished.

As travel restrictions ease, the volume will increase and many countries are expected to start requiring proof of vaccination (or previous coronavirus infection) to enter, or simply to skip the quarantine requirement. More passengers and more documentation requirements will make processing even more complicated.

“We have to automate this thing,” said Nick Careen, senior vice president of the International Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade group. “Even if no vaccination requirement is approved, there will still be a requirement for testing, and we cannot do it manually.”

(Even with an electronic system, officials say, some people will have to use paper health documents because they don’t have access to digital tools.)

No major country has publicly released the verification of vaccines for domestic travel. But some governments and businesses are already requiring proof of a negative coronavirus test to enter some crowded places, and a few have started requiring proof of vaccination, increasing the desire for an electronic alternative.

To be most useful, a digital recording would need to be widely adopted – by governments that screen travelers, by airlines and shipping lines that screen passengers, by companies restricting admission, and by the mishmash of providers. from health care, government agencies and drugstores that hit the nail on the head. .

This in turn means that it should be easy to use and relatively inexpensive. Requiring organizations to spend a lot of money or adopt new software would be a barrier.

In February, the Israeli government began issuing its digital Green Pass or a physical certificate to people who had been vaccinated, and it is forced to enter places like hotels and theaters.

Over the past month, hundreds of other entities around the world – airlines, governments, drugstore chains and more – have started using privately controlled digital systems to verify health credentials. . Most are using the systems – including one called CommonPass and the International Air Transport Association’s own system, Travel Pass – on a test basis, to check for negative coronavirus tests.

The systems are also designed to show proof of vaccination, if necessary.

In March, Aruba and JetBlue began allowing passengers from the United States to test negative using CommonPass, developed by Commons Project, a nonprofit based in Switzerland, with support from the World Economic Forum. . Lufthansa passengers arriving in the United States can also use it.

That same month, Singapore Airlines became the first carrier to make limited use of the Travel Pass for people traveling between Singapore and London, and will roll it out widely in May.

Also in March, New York State became the first United States government to implement a system, the Excelsior Pass, developed with IBM, which some sites have used to prove vaccination. The governors of Florida and Texas have vowed to block any such system in their states, calling it government disproportion and invasion of privacy.

Iceland this month eased entry restrictions for people who have been vaccinated, and Britain is set to start experimenting with a vaccine verification requirement to attend sporting events, although ‘no country has so far adopted a digital system.

The Biden administration acknowledges that private entities will use such systems, but says the federal government will not be involved in creating one. “There will be no federal immunization database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination certificate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.

This does not, however, exclude a federal agency from using an electronic health certificate developed by the private sector to screen international travelers.

Many of the objections that have been raised are about privacy, but the people who develop the systems say they can be resolved.

CommonPass and its app, for example, do not hold any user’s health records, said Paul Meyer, executive director of the Commons Project Foundation. If a participating airline needs to know if a passenger has had a negative test or inoculation and a participating pharmacy has the information, CommonPass can contact both and return a simple yes or no response, without transmitting any information. specific data.

“You shouldn’t have to hand over your health record to Yankee Stadium or to an airline,” Mr. Meyer said.

Many technology and healthcare entities have come together under the name of the Vaccine Credential Initiative, to develop a widely accepted set of open standards, which means that the software underlying a verification system is transparent and can be implemented. easily adapt to other systems, while protecting privacy. WHO has a similar initiative, the smart vaccination certificate.

But several companies are creating closed, proprietary systems that they hope to sell to their customers, and some apparently have access to user information.

One concern is that a host of systems might not be compatible, defeating the goal of making it easier to verify a person’s status.

Another objection is that any requirement to prove vaccination status would discriminate against those who cannot be vaccinated or who refuse to be vaccinated, and there is lingering uncertainty about how inoculation prevents transmission of the virus.

For these reasons, the WHO said this week that it does not support the requirement for proof of vaccination for travel – yet.

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