COVID-19 Passports and Travel

Immunity Passport

With COVID-19 vaccine programmes gaining momentum, the subject of immunity passports and international travel is worth reviewing. Such a passport could  be proof of vaccination and so record an individual considered as having immunity to COVID-19.

A COVID-19 Vaccine Passport will show a low-risk individual, unlikely to contract or spread the disease. So it may afford them a range of social or travel privileges over those who don’t possess of such a document.

But what at first might seem like a simple and positive idea in fact raises a bunch of ethical and practical considerations. Like, for example, balancing the need to treat people equally whilst providing some privileges to the immune.

Ethics & technology

Last month Exeter University reported on potential human rights issues pointing out that “if some people cannot access or afford COVID-19 tests or vaccines, they cannot prove their health status, and thus their freedoms will be de facto restricted”. (euronews.com). Also, sharing personal health details presents important data protection issues. In the meantime, Israel has already announced an internal programme of “green passports”. (Newsweek). Also, IATA announced its use of blockchain technology to develop an app with passport-like features (BeInCrypto). In December a V-Health Passport , a form of digital health pass was launched. But this is a very limited mobile app. It uses some proprietary technology, and is available at  Liverpool and Newcastle Airports, and is delivered together with private companies offering COVID-19 testing. In the UK 2 companies, assisted by the NHS, are trialling a system that doesn’t need to capture or store any personal identity data. Instead, it builds a mathematical model of the user’s face and uses AI to devise codes that are unique to the user’s face. It then associates this to a reference number on the individual’s test or vaccine. This seems clever, and with both off and online availability, it may not require the user to have any of smart technology. But this doesn’t seem at face value to address principles of equal treatment for all. It also has the potential to magnify personal data protection issues.
Complexity of international travel - planes

Travel industry views

The position for the travel industry seems pretty clear, though. Qantas, Korean Air and Heathrow Airport, amongst others, have already publicly stated a positive inclination to some form of health passport. Indeed, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines told the BBC that “he would make whatever changes to the business model that will be necessary”, pointing to the public’s readiness to adopt new rules after 9/11. (bbc.com)

Will the passports negate the need for testing passengers at airports, though? Somehow there will linger the fear of inaccurate testing and of non-uniform effectiveness in applying an international passport standard.

So what is coming into focus is a fragmented travel industry. The unvaccinated would expect testing and quarantine to be a part of their international trips. The vaccinated will have an all together easier trip, potentially. 

Standardisation

The issue of how to develop and implement international standards is a substantial issue beyond the travel sector. Maintaining equally controlled processes across diverse cultures and political systems represents a real challenge.

IBM is developing a digital health passport, and other multi-national groups will doubtless do the same. But clearly this is a project of a scale that extends far beyond any single company or government. A Vaccination Credential Initiative was announced this month bringing together organisations including Microsoft, Mitre, Oracle and Salesforce. The stated goal is “to empower individuals with digital access to their vaccination records so they can use tools like CommonPass to return safely to travel, work, school and life, while protecting their data privacy”.

CommonPass aims to deliver a universally accepted digital document “verifying traveller’s record of a COVID PCR test or vaccination” This initiative comes from The Commons Project, a self-declared “new kind of entity to meet the needs of our times, filling the void between business, government and traditional nonprofits”. Product trials followed rapid adoption of Android and iOS standards.

This seems to be a positive step. But they cannot overcome the problems of the digital divide in the short term. To highlight this recent UK data shows that 10.7 million people in the UK have limited or zero digital skills, and 20% of households have no internet access. Also, 16% of UK adults have very poor literacy skills. Added to this 1 in 10 people in the UK have difficulty paying for communication services (BMJ). Of course these long-standing financial, social, and language disparities are even greater beyond Western Europe. Disparate access and use to initiatives such as CommonPass will frustrate the achievement of its objectives, and breach the fundamental ethical need to treat people equally.

Back to the pandemic

But there is also the scientific concern overshadowing all of this debate. It isn’t clear that there is full understanding of immune responses to the COVID-19 virus. Also, the virus’s mutations may still out-run the efficacy of vaccines, requiring adaptations to vaccine programmes, and an extended assessment of their efficacy. For example, Moderna the US vaccine manufacturer, this week announced it will launch two new studies to investigate a third booster jab and a vaccine specific to the South Africa variant. “The virus is changing its stripes, and we will change to make sure we can beat the virus where it’s going,” Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, (Washington Post.)


Faced with these ethical, practical and scientific worries, it doesn’t seem like passports are going to be part of a universal, quick rise above the pandemic. On reflection, what COVID-19 is doing is speeding up the fragmentation of travel, and complicating future understanding of how to travel easily and safely. 

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COVID-19 Passports and Travel