What you need to know about vaccine passports

A digital certificate or vaccine passport is being considered by government bodies around the world as part of a process to limit the spread of Covid-19 as vaccinations roll out.

In January, the US administration released a document from the Executive Office of the President detailing science-based public health measures to preventing the spread of Covid-19.

It outlines the conditions and actions for international and domestic travel, by mode, as well as other guidelines including quarantine, testing, vaccination, follow-up testing, symptom monitoring, air filtration requirements, environmental decontamination standards and contact tracing.

One such measure also explored the feasibility of linking Covid-19 vaccination to International Certificates of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) and producing electronic versions of ICVPs.

If the US proceeded to implement this change to ICVP, it could be used as a means to control people movements domestically and internationally.

A senior advisor to the White House, Andy Slavitt, said it was not the role of any government to create such a passport or hold that kind of data on its citizens.

He described the ideal vaccine passport to mainstream media as free, equitable, secure, accessible in multiple languages and available as a digital and paper product.

The US administration, under Biden, is expected to provide guidance to the private sector on these developments.

A benefit of introducing this system would presumably be to helping industry return to some form of pre-Covid normalcy.

Meanwhile, the European Commission presented a proposal earlier this month to create a Digital Green Certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Digital Green Certificate is designed to be digital proof that a person has either been vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative test result or recovered from Covid-19.

Key features of this certificate are reported to include digital/paper format with QR code, free of charge, safe and secure, digital seal for authenticity and validity in all EU countries.

National authorities including hospitals and test centres would be in charge of issuing Digital Green Certificates.

“The Digital Green Certificate will be accepted in all EU Member States,” the European Commission said in a statement.

“It will help to ensure that restrictions currently in place can be lifted in a coordinated manner.

“When travelling, every EU citizen or third-country national legally staying or residing in the EU, who holds a Digital Green Certificate, should be exempted from free movement restrictions in the same way as citizens from the visited Member State.

“If a Member State continues to require holders of a Digital Green Certificate to quarantine or test, it must notify the Commission and all other Member States and justify this decision.”

The European Commission will build a gateway for these certificates to be checked. Through this gateway, all certificate signatures can be verified across the EU. The personal data encoded in the certificate does not pass through the gateway, as this is not necessary to verify the digital signature. The Commission will also help Member States to develop a software that authorities can use to check the QR codes

The Digital Green Certificate contains necessary key information such as name, date of birth, date of issuance, relevant information about vaccine/ test/recovery and a unique identifier.

The certificates will only include a limited set of information that is necessary. This cannot be retained by visited countries. For verification purposes, only the validity and authenticity of the certificate is checked by verifying who issued and signed it. All health data remains with the Member State that issued a Digital Green Certificate.

A legal proposal on Digital Green Certificates is with the European Parliament and EU Member States for review.

Should this pass, preparation will be carried out for the logistical rollout of these certificates along with the appropriate digital infrastructure as well as necessary changes to national health record systems among Member States.

Interestingly, the World Health Organization said last month that national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.

In addition, considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe Covid-19 disease.

WHO also recommended that people who are vaccinated should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures.

In February, Air New Zealand announced the trial of a global digital travel pass.

Air New Zealand Chief Digital Officer, Jennifer Sepull, said the goal is to enable customers to seamlessly manage their digital travel documentation throughout their travel experience.

“Once borders reopen, travel is going to look very different, with customers’ health data needing to be verified at check-in,” she said.

“It’s essentially like having a digital health certificate that can be easily and securely shared with airlines. This will give customers peace of mind that they meet all travel requirements for the different countries around the world before they even get to the airport.

“Reassuring customers that travel is in fact safe is one of our priorities. By using the app, customers can have confidence that everyone onboard meets the same government health requirements they do.

“By having a place to store all your health credentials digitally in one place, it will not only speed up the check-in process but unlock the potential for contactless travel.”

Customer privacy, according to Air New Zealand, is reported to be at the heart of the design – there is no central database storing personal information and is shared at the traveller’s discretion.

In related news, a study involving care personnel, first responders and essential workers provides strong evidence that Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing SARS-CoV-2 infections in real-world conditions.