Vaccine Passports: Where’s This Heading?

If you are a digital nomad, or lead a life that requires a lot of travel, vaccine passports might be something that’s popped up on your radar.

June 21, 2021

By: Bobby Casey, Managing Director GWP

vaccine passport Anyone who knows me, knows I oppose the mere idea of a vaccine passport. If I had my way, we’d not even need regular passports to travel from country to country. But I’m a realist, so I work within the framework we have.

Businesses and full industries are looking at vaccines as the light at the end of the COVID tunnel. Hospitality, travel, and tourism see vaccines as the gateway to reopening. Countries that rely on those industries especially are hungry for a quick fix like an app with vaccine records.

You run into a few issues. First, the Biden Administration has already said, it will not impose a federal vaccine passport policy. It couldn’t given the legal obstacles:

“[T]he U.S. does not have a national database for immunization records that could act as the source of vaccination data for use in digital passes. A national system to create a unique identification number to link the health records of every American has been banned since 1998, spearheaded by then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who said such a system would be an unwarranted privacy intrusion.”

In the case of the US, what really happens is, the states can step in and determine if they will have a policy; or punt the responsibility over to private businesses in the same way they did with mask and distancing mandates.

In the discussions I’ve had about this, the bottom line is the impracticality of it. There are only two ways this can go: digitally, or a physical card.

Without question, forgeries of the physical cards will be in such high circulation, both the efficacy and veracity of such a protocol will be a non-starter.

Which leaves us with a digital system. I’ll address the individual liberty thing in a moment. Their sheer impracticality of this system is where it falls apart.

Each country will want its own iteration of requirements. Some want confirmation of a negative test, some want proof of vaccination, some want proof of recovery, some want a combination of the three.

Myriads of apps are vying to fill this need, but the biggest problem is the disparate nature of the information. With each fulfilling different requirements, none of them universally accepted, and no central database by which to verify records, we are a long way from this being the final say on reopening.

So far, Hawaii, New York, and Rhode Island have strict entry and exit requirements. New York awarded IBM with the task of building out Excelsior Pass. You can get the app for free and upload negative test results or your vaccination records to it. From there you can either print or present the information on your app along with photo identification.

Roughly 2 million people have downloaded the app and the businesses need only get the corresponding app to scan and verify the QR codes.

On the other end, you have states like Florida that banned vaccine passports, which is another road block in getting nation-wide acceptance of the “passport”.

Still the digital information is out there in the various healthcare and health insurance networks. Clear and Carbon Health both have a considerable number of health records they can tap into for their apps.

If you just looked at one state or country, perhaps you could work something out. In the US, the physical cards are accepted everywhere. They are also the least likely to be authentic, and the least accepted internationally.

Now take the issues seen in the US, and scale that up to an international level. How many apps would someone like me have to download to get around?

Each administrator of a test or vaccine would have to sync their systems up to each of those apps to verify information, and each venue, business, or jurisdiction would need to likewise carry a corresponding app by which to scan and verify information.

And, this is all on top of the contact tracing apps in some of these places.

The EU, China, and Japan are each working on their own vaccine passport. The EU is set to roll one out this summer, but they have no border checkpoints within the EU, so how would they check on someone’s immunity status?

They are leaving it up to each country, and perhaps at airports and train or bus stops they could scan their pass. International air carriers are collaborating on their own projects:

The International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, has its smartphone IATA Travel Pass, which airlines including Qantas, Japan Airlines, Emirates, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have signed up to. A rival effort, the nonprofit CommonPass, has gained traction with carriers like Cathay Pacific, JetBlue, United and Lufthansa.

The individual liberty aspect of this is disturbing to say the least. You’re trusting a lot of different players with not just your shot records (which may or may not be unto themselves consequential), but with biometrics of your face tied to those records.

IATA says it doesn’t verify test results or vaccination status but acts as the conduit for registered labs to securely send those details to travelers whose identity the app can match to the person who took the test or vaccination. The app scans a traveler’s face using the phone camera and matches it to passport biometric details, and there are checks to prevent someone else using their identity.

Holding the economy hostage until the private sector solves a political problem is peek fascism. Politicians insist upon the private sector to not only come up with a solution, but become the enforcers to “reopen” their industry.

The countries and federations moving toward vaccine passports might very well be in a position to do it. But countries who lack the infrastructure, are economically unable to enforce such laws, or lack the luxury of being so particular about those who come to their countries to spend money, might not pursue these measures or interventions.

Over the next year or so, we will see where the political tides take the world. For now, there’s no unified front, no universal database, no universal app, and no universal buy-in. It’s inconvenient for all users from care providers, to travelers, to businesses. It’s difficult to see how all this impracticality is overcome.

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