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Are Digital Vaccine Passports our Ticket to Normalcy?

The first state to create the digital vaccine passport in the US was New York/ Image from NYS Excelsior Pass Flyer

Society’s road to a new normal is facilitated by widespread vaccinations against COVID-19. As of this week, 149,667,646 (46%) Americans have been fully vaccinated and 177,088,290 (54%) have received at least one dose.(1) The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that individuals who are fully vaccinated can resume pre-pandemic activities without being constrained by social distancing limitations.(2)

The Challenge

With warmer weather ushering in the reopening of sports venues and the resurgence of leisure travel, there is pressure from private businesses and the international community for individuals to certify their vaccination status reliably and expeditiously prior to engaging in travel or large public gatherings. The ticket (no pun intended) is the digital vaccine passport.

The Ask

Digital vaccine passports, or more precisely digital health certificates, will need the following characteristics to be effective and reliable:

  • Universally acceptable based on global standards
  • Ensure privacy
  • Equitably available
  • Scalable
  • Reliably accurate and not corruptible
  • Able to process large volumes of individuals in an expeditious and frictionless way
  • Uniform and interoperable

The Concerns

A two-tiered system with access for vaccinated individuals was intended to motivate the public to get vaccinated. However, the premise of granting access to vaccinated individuals while barring the unvaccinated raises multiple ethical concerns.(3) First and foremost, it reinforces existing inequalities of vaccine accessibility, including those of undocumented migrants, minorities, and people of low socioeconomic status. It also impinges on individual freedoms, including healthcare decisions related to vaccinations. Other issues include privacy concerns surrounding vaccine status or details about one’s history of illness. The databases storing vaccine status information are susceptible to cybersecurity attacks.

Use case: Travel Industry

COVID-19 vaccination rates and case numbers are a moving target country to country. The international travel industry has required all passengers to demonstrate either a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours, recovery from a prior COVID-19 infection, or certifiable vaccination status. In doing so, many countries are forgoing the requirement of testing or quarantining upon arrival. For example, as of July 1, 2021, The European Union plans to revive European travel by requiring all travelers to travel with an EU Digital COVID Certificate, dubbed the “Digital Green Certificate.”(4) It provides users with a free digital (or optional hardcopy) document that securely stores vaccination and testing information that is readily disseminated via QR code to allow for travel within the EU.

The IATA (International Air Transport Association) has developed the IATA Travel Pass app that functions as a notification tool for travelers including information on requirements for travel, participating clinic locations for obtaining verifiable vaccines or testing, and a privacy protected repository of testing and vaccination results.(5) The IATA has 4 active components:

(1) Registry of Health Requirements
(2) Registry of testing/vaccination centers
(3) Lab App to send verified results and
(4) Travel Pass App that is traveler facing with a QR code.

This secure system gives confidence to private airlines that they can resume activities safely and to governments of the receiving travelers that the vaccination and testing status of their visitors is verifiable and accurate. At the time of this writing, 42 international airlines require their travelers to present an up-to-date IATA Travel Pass.

The nonprofit Commons Project Foundation and the World Economic Forum collaborated on the CommonPass, which is a vaccine verification platform built on the Common Trust Network of verifiable lab results and vaccination records from a network of trusted sources that meet globally interoperable standards. The app is meant to create a trusted health certificate that can be used across all industries including travel. Recently, the partnership between CommonPass and CLEAR synergistically offers a secure and private means of storing health data in a user-friendly platform.(6)

Travel in the United States is currently functioning at 70% of pre-pandemic rates, up from 60% in April 2021.(7) However, domestic US travelers will not be required to present a digital passport because of its inconsistent adoption between states. For example, New York has created its own vaccine passport (NYS Excelsior Pass) while states such as Alabama, Arizona, Florida, and Georgia have banned businesses from requiring them. Further, access to vaccine data registries, subject to state jurisdiction, will similarly be incomplete if states choose not to volunteer that information.

Additional unique vaccine platform approaches

  • The New York State Excelsior Pass: developed by IBM, is unique in its reliance on blockchain technology to consolidate multiple data sources including state vaccination records and health providers.
  • BLOKBioScience: developed two apps to be used to quickly clear an individual to be granted access to a venue: BLOK Pass and BLOK Verify. BLOK Pass is a customer-facing interface to record vaccine data and test results, which uniquely offers self-sovereign identity (SSI) technology to keep their data on the individual’s device. BLOK Verify is a facility facing interface that reads a unique QR code based on the venue’s criteria for entry and assigns a red, amber, or green category to the individual.  This allows the venue to be blinded to the health-related details of the customer.
  • iProov: a cloud-based identity check software that relies on facial recognition technology to authenticate a person’s COVID-19 vaccine or test status without exposing other personally identifiable information such as name, DOB, address.
  • The COVID-19 Credentials Initiative, hosted by Linux Foundation Public Health, is building on an interoperable network of Verifiable Credentials in the public health space and developing open-source software that manages verifiable, secure, and privacy-protecting credentials.

On the coattails of the travel industry, other industries will similarly require vaccine passports including large public venues and universities. The lesson learned from Israel (an early adopter of digital vaccine passports) was that once the country’s extensive vaccination program was successful, the digital vaccine passport proved futile and went out of circulation. Based on Israel’s experience, vaccine passports will likely only be a temporary fixture in relation to communities fully reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the framework and implementation of these vaccine passports sets a precedent for how future digital health certifications can be used in a non-pandemic setting. 


References: 

1.     US Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker.” USAFacts.org, 18 June 2021, https://usafacts.org/visualizations/covid-vaccine-tracker-states.

2.     When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html.  

3.     Yeginsu, Ceylan. “What Are the Roadblocks to a ‘Vaccine Passport’?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 June 2021, www.nytimes.com/article/vaccinepassport.html.

4.     “EU Digital COVID Certificate.” European Commission – European Commission, 22 June 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/coronavirus-response/safe-covid-19-vaccines-europeans/eu-digital-covid-certificate_en

5.     IATA Travel Pass Initiative.” IATAwww.iata.org/en/programs/passenger/travel-pass/.

6.     The Commons Project Foundation and CLEAR Partner To Support Safe, Secure Return To Work, School, Travel, Sports And Entertainment, 5 Mar. 2021, www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-commons-project-foundation-and-clear-partner-to-support-safe-secure-return-to-work-school-travel-sports-and-entertainment301241608.html.  

7.     TSA Checkpoint Travel Numbers (Current Year(s) versus Prior Year/Same Weekday).” TSA Checkpoint Travel Numbers (Current Year(s) versus Prior Year/Same Weekday) | Transportation Security Administrationwww.tsa.gov/coronavirus/passenger-throughput.  


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