The pros and cons for vaccine passports

March 11, 2021 | 10:00
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Last week I received a text from Britain’s National Health Service, the NHS, asking to register for a COVID-19 vaccination. The registration process is simple and quick over the phone. I arrived at the registered venue and found no waiting in line due to the pre-booked time and date. After only five minutes, I left with a small blue card with my name, medical registration number, date, and the type of vaccine being given.
1534 p19 the pros and cons for vaccine passports
By Dr. Cuong Nguyen - Architect in the UK

I got the AstraZeneca injection while some of my friends in other regions got Pfizer or Moderna. All were free. There is no division of who will get what vaccines. The procedure is transparent and the vaccines you get are a random choice when you register.

With this card, I join the ranks of nearly 20 million British citizens who were given the first shot of the vaccine. The second shot will be given after 12 weeks. Before leaving, the nurse also told me that if I were to go abroad, I could contact my personal doctor for a certificate verifying that I had been vaccinated for COVID-19.

All procedures are very simple and quick because all the medical information of every UK citizen is digitalised and automatically updated on the national health management system. The doctors will see all of my up-to-date medical information so that a green card was not the only proof of my vaccination.

The UK has one of the highest rates of vaccinated people worldwide. Currently, they are only behind Israel and the UAE. Its government is targeting a mass vaccination of all UK citizens by July and planning to return to a new normal state in the second half of June this year. The economy will re-open, with all services, businesses, manufacturing, sports, cultural and entertainment industries fully restored. Immediately after the government announced this plan, the pound increased in value, and the number of people signing up for airline tickets skyrocketed.

The link between vaccines, the economy, and tourism are clear. However, it also needs to be added that there is still a long and unpredictable road ahead, with the emergence of more contagious and vaccine-resistant virus variants that will make every economic recovery and lockdown easing plan unexpectedly adjusted at the last minute.

Similar to the efforts of all countries to access and vaccinate their citizens, the question is whether a type of vaccine certificate or passport should be introduced to those who have been vaccinated. It is important to consider what areas of life would be limited to them, such as travelling abroad, applying for a job, participating in crowded sports and entertainment activities, or even daily shopping.

The idea of such a vaccination passport or certificate is already being tested in several countries, as well as companies and organisations in several sectors of the economy. Countries such as Bahrain, Israel, Denmark, and Estonia have done this. Big companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, American Airlines, and Cathay Pacific have started pilot projects with the application of health passes in digital format and printed on paper. The International Airlines Association (IATA) is also promoting a global solution for this with a digital pass that contains information about whether passengers have been vaccinated.

Similarly, there are also mobile apps or QR codes to quickly determine a person’s risk of infection and the extent to which they can travel, such as China, or to confirm that the person has recovered from the coronavirus (Chile) or been vaccinated (India).

The benefits of a universal, globally recognised vaccine passport are visible for the world economy to reopen and for people to live, trade, and travel safely. However there are still many obstacles causing hesitation among governments, scientists, businesses, and people with different attitudes towards this idea.

For example, within the European Union, countries such as Greece and Austria, of which economies are heavily based on tourism, have been promoting the idea of early introduction of vaccine passports. Greece and Cyprus also allow Israeli citizens with a “green pass” to enter their country without having to quarantine. A similar agreement is being considered between Greece and the UK when the British government announced a plan to issue a certificate of vaccination to its citizens wishing to travel abroad.

However, other EU countries, such as Germany and France, are more cautious about this idea. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that it will take at least a further three months to build a database for the introduction of vaccine passports at borders and public health systems of countries in the EU bloc. Besides, there are questions over the science, ethics, law, fairness, and privacy of each individual.

According to the UK Royal Society, in order to be widely applicable, a vaccine passport needs to pass a test with 12 criteria. These include:

- Meeting benchmarks for COVID-19 immunity;

- Accommodating differences between vaccines in their efficacy, and changes in efficacy against emerging variants;

- Being internationally standardised;

- Having verifiable credentials;

- Having defined uses;

- Being based on a platform of interoperable technologies;

- Being secure for personal data;

- Being portable;

- Being affordable for individuals and governments;

- Meeting legal standards;

- Meeting ethical standards; and

- Having conditions of use that are understood and accepted by the passport holders.

Looking at the criteria, we can also imagine the obstacles challenging the idea’s application. For example, the debate of how effective existing vaccines are to prevent COVID-19 is still being studied. There are no clear conclusions about whether a person, after being vaccinated, is still capable of infecting others.

The dangers of newer strains of the virus that are more contagious and resistant to vaccines are scientific barriers that need to be overcome. In addition, there are legal framework issues, the recognition of vaccination results between countries and the possibility of forgery results that still remain a challenge.

Vaccine passport adoption would create discrimination and inequality between citizens of vaccinated and unvaccinated countries, or between groups of people who were not vaccinated for health or religious reasons with the vaccinated group, in accessing services and jobs.

Perhaps it will take more time to reach a consensus and widely applied vaccine passport, globally as well as within each country. The EU is carefully moving in the direction to introduce its vaccine passport soon but only limited to its member states for the time being. Consequently, this aims to create conditions for citizens of the bloc to travel safely to work and travel within the EU.

The Israeli government, instead, is quite determined in requiring its citizens to vaccinate and get a “green pass”, if to not lose access to essential services as well as jobs. The UK government, however, announced it was considering issuing vaccines passports to its citizens when required, yet stressed that the UK has no plans to use domestic vaccine passports to prevent their access to services, cultural events, sports, or jobs.

The old proverb “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” arguably applies in this case. If we look back at the long journey and the very expensive price the world has had to pay to accept that wearing masks is an effective method of COVID-19 virus prevention, we will be able to imagine a future ahead with global vaccination passport application.

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