What Are COVID-19 Vaccine Passports?

As the world population continues to get COVID-19 vaccinations, there is a growing conversation about whether or not residents will need a vaccine passport. These passports would provide official proof that a U.S. or world citizen has received one of the approved vaccines in their home country. Not all citizens and government officials want these passports, though.

Vaccine passports would help healthcare providers and the general public understand who is still at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Businesses, venues, and public events could all benefit from requiring proof of vaccination as well. However, some argue that requiring such verification could be a violation of rights and privacy.

Now, people are looking to governments to make a decision about these passports. Will they become a requirement in your area?

Protecting Health

Slowing the viruses spread and keeping people safe are the primary focus of health organizations across the country. Obtaining a vaccine passport, which could come in the form of a physical paper copy or a smartphone app, can show who could potentially spread the virus and who will be safer.

If you or someone you know has already gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, you may have also obtained a card that shows the date of your doses. This card is a form of a vaccination passport. Another idea involves the use of mobile apps that store the data so you’ll have the information with you at all times.

Either of these forms of proof could be essential for traveling, especially internationally if other countries have restrictions on who can enter. You could present your passport to the agents upon exiting and entering another country or region. This dynamic could help slow the domestic and international spread of the virus.

However, despite these potential benefits, the U.S. government recently rejected the idea of requiring citizens to carry a vaccine passport. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, stated that the federal government will not create a database of vaccinated individuals, nor will it issue universal vaccination passports.

Meanwhile, the European Union has proposed a universal “Digital Green Certificate,” which EU officials say would help bring back the freedom of international travel for the vaccinated. With summer tourism revenue on the line, the timing feels appropriate but could worsen cases of “vaccine inequality” by keeping the less-well-off or those who object to vaccines at home.

Denmark and other European countries plan to incorporate QR-code-based vaccine proof into their pre-existing national digital databases for citizens. In some of the world, at least, linking vaccine information to existing citizenship documentation has not proven overly controversial.

The conversations in Europe center on choosing appropriate technologies for safeguarding this now-essential form of public health data and how to do so within the bounds of the law. Much of the conversation in America so far has been dominated by anti-vaccine rhetoric and assertions that vaccine proof constitutes government overreach.

The artificially amplified anti-vaccination fringe may have put a damper on health-related technology innovation in the United States. This may change soon, though, as some of the bigger tech companies are actively exploring how to [store and protect] vaccination records in digital wallets on a larger scale. This is already possible with credit and debit cards, and the same should easily be true for protected health information (PHI).

Ultimately, no matter the nation, individual states, and private entities may be able to ask for verification of COVID-19 immunization history. For instance, Brown University and Northeastern University will require students to be vaccinated if they wish to return to campus for the upcoming fall semester. This will also require proof in some form.

Growing Concerns

The governors of Texas and Florida have preemptively banned the requirement of vaccine passports in their states. What, exactly, is driving this decision?

First, some U.S. residents have concerns over the handling of their personal information should any government or health organization be keeping a record of their immunization history.

The issue runs deeper, though. With the newness of these vaccines, misinformation has been spreading regarding the severity of the pandemic and the vaccines’ long-term effects. As this false information spreads, people turn away from getting vaccinated and thus do not want a required vaccine passport.

False claims could then lead to falsified immunization passports. The high stakes of the pandemic and the potential for misinformation and fake passports is a combination the government will need to be on the lookout for. The False Claims Act can cover some of these instances, like when an individual defrauds a government entity or initiative.

Then and only then can the government take action through the Act. Otherwise, officials will need to keep dispelling false information and promoting the facts.

Still, if any states go through with the passport idea, they’ll encounter another obstaclecybersecurity. People can easily forge a paper vaccine passport, which makes mobile apps more appealing. However, having a digital log will require a significant amount of encryption and cybersecurity professionals on deck to prevent fraud and breaches.

The European Union cites public pressure in its choice to expedite the rollout of its Green Digital Pass. It’s clear EU leaders are cognizant about the enormous pressure this places on them with respect to balancing privacy, liberty, and cybersecurity with public health needs. EU leaders indicate there will be EU-level and country-level exemptions on health, gender, religious, and other grounds. The so-called “legal minefield” is considerable.

So, again, is the threat of vaccine inequality. Those watching the legal fallout of the EU’s push for a universal vaccine passport cite a lack of digital access as a likely barrier for lower-income people across the globe.

Requiring universal digital passports is an extreme measure, by some accounts. So is outright banning them at the state level. It’s unclear how each country, state, and private organization will proceed. Regardless, leaders need to provide solutions for each concern any individual may have.

A Common Goal

COVID-19 vaccine passports can help society return to normal as they show who has immunity against the virus and who doesn’t, which then slows the spread. The concerns over the vaccines themselves as well as the handling of private data impede benefits, though.

Therefore, governments and health organizations must focus on the common goal — getting through the pandemic. Some states have already banned passports while others are giving out easily lost card records. Still, others have long since had the digital infrastructure in place to track and provide proof for vaccination records. For citizens in these countries, having a digital component of their citizenship and other records has been business-as-usual for a while.

More information is necessary to balance the pros and cons of the passports. There’s clearly no single solution that satisfies every party, but it’s also clear that returning to normal requires some compromise and some kind of solution, digital or not, for verifying vaccination status. Vaccine passports are the reason many countries don’t have to worry about smallpox and other maladies, and vaccines have long been a part of the experience of enrolling in public and private educational institutions.

We know countries can find a balance between individual liberties and public health because they’re already done it many times.