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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Explained: The scientific, ethical and privacy concerns around vaccine passports

Vaccine passport: Critics warn there are scientific, legal and ethical effects of this type of documentation that still need to be addressed.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: March 20, 2021 2:02:35 pm
vaccine passport, what is vaccine passport, vaccine passport explained, countries with vaccine passports, vaccine passports criticism, indian expressTravelers walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

On Wednesday, the European Union announced its plans to roll out a joint vaccination passport for more than 440 million of its citizens in an attempt to kickstart cross-border travel and revive Europe’s struggling tourism sector. The aim of the document, which would act as a sort of certificate, would be to give people who have received the Covid-19 vaccine access to certain facilities and events.

The EU’s decision has not been accepted by all its member states, with some pointing out that the rate of vaccination in Europe is still not on par with the United States and other countries. But the EU is not the first to consider issuing vaccine passports to ease international travel. A number of countries, including Bahrain, Israel and China, have already started to roll out their own forms of certification amid the pandemic.

But critics warn there are scientific, legal and ethical effects of this type of documentation that still need to be addressed.

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What is a vaccine passport and how does it work?

A vaccine passport is essentially a certificate given to an individual who has been vaccinated against a virus — in this case, Covid-19. These certificates could be made available in the form of a stamped certificate, or simply a digital document that can be stored on a smartphone. The aim of the document or ‘passport’ is to act as proof that the person has been vaccinated against the illness, and is hence, ‘safe’.

But, despite what its name suggests, the vaccine passport is not only used by travellers. The document could become a requirement for a range of other activities and facilities as well. From watching a movie, to eating a meal at a restaurant — citizens may be required to present their ‘vaccine passports’ before they are permitted to enter some public spaces.

So, why are people objecting to vaccine passports?

Critics of the vaccine passport have pointed out that apart from the obvious scientific shortcomings of such a system, using such a document could also be discriminatory. These documents have been criticised by human rights activists and data protection advocates, who have raised concerns about the privacy and data security issues associated with vaccine passports.

Scientific concerns: A number of vocal Covid vaccine passport sceptics have said it is too early for countries to start pushing out such documents since data on the efficacy of vaccines in preventing people from contracting or passing on the deadly virus is still limited.

Another growing complication is the emergence of more virulent strains of the virus — such as the UK, South African and Brazilian mutations — and whether vaccines will be able to offer adequate protection against future variants as well.

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Ethical issues: Others have argued against the use of vaccine passports as they could be discriminatory against those who have not yet received the Covid jab. While those who are vaccinated will be able to travel and enjoy a number of facilities, non-vaccinated citizens will still have to face restrictions.

Some experts have also said that these passports could lead to a global incentive for vaccinating international travellers before prioritising Covid vaccine doses for poorer countries and swathes of at-risk communities around the world.

In an interim position paper on the topic, the World Health Organization (WHO) wrote, “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.”

“In the current context”, the WHO said, “introducing a requirement of vaccination as a condition for travel has the potential to hinder equitable global access to a limited vaccine supply and would be unlikely to maximise the benefits of vaccination for individual societies and overall global health”.

Privacy concerns: Data security activists point out that the digital certificates can even be used by authorities to track the movement of their holders.

Which countries are presently using vaccine passports?

Several countries have already rolled out vaccine passports in some form. In Israel, for instance, citizens are receiving a government-validated certificate called the ‘Green Pass’, which are valid for a period of six months after they receive the vaccine.

With the new ‘green booklet’, a vaccinated individual will have significant freedoms from Covid safety protocols. They will no longer have to go into isolation after travelling to a Covid “red zone”, or a country with a high infection rate. They will also be exempted from quarantining if they were to come in contact with an infected person.

In February, Denmark announced a new digital corona passport that will show whether people have been vaccinated against the deadly disease. The Danish government has said that the passport will be ready for use in the next three to four months, The Associated Press reported.

The government collaborated with representatives of the Confederation of Danish Industries, which represents Denmark’s major companies, and the Danish Chamber of Commerce to develop the novel passport.

Meanwhile, non-profit Common project has been trying out an app called CommonPass, which contains a passenger’s vaccination record. According to a report in The Washington Post, passengers have been using CommonPass for testing verification on select flights out of New York, Boston, London, and Hong Kong with United, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International and Virgin Atlantic since December. Prior to that, trials were conducted for United and Cathay Pacific flights to London, New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) a global aviation body, will soon launch its digital travel pass, which will enable international travellers to store information about their health, travel, Covid diagnosis and vaccination status. The digital pass, which can be saved on your phone as a mobile app, is being adopted by a number of international airlines including Etihad Airways and Emirates.

Earlier this month, China unveiled its digital vaccine passport for tens of millions of its residents who have already received their Covid vaccine shots. According to China’s foreign ministry, the passport is accessed by scanning a QR code on an app. Once they are able to present their digital passport, Chinese citizens and residents have the freedom to travel in and out of the country.

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