Fill Me In
It’s a question that’s probably lurked at the back of our minds for some time now – when will we be able to travel (safely) again? Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in our well-laid plans, the thought of hopping on a plane or a cruise ship and embarking on an adventure abroad has turned into a near-fantasy. Well, it appears that a viable solution to our wanderlust woes is on the horizon. As the various coronavirus vaccines begin to roll out around the world (Singapore included), the idea of introducing “vaccine passports” in order to jumpstart the global tourism and trade industries is quickly gathering steam. But are vaccine passports really all they’re made out to be?
What is a vaccine passport?
In theory, a vaccine passport, also known as an immunity passport, functions as a (likely digital) record of a person’s COVID-19 test results and vaccination status, creating health credentials that would enable its holder to move around more freely, both locally and globally, and thus pave the way for a return to ‘normal’ life. A vaccine passport could take the form of a physical card (similar to the WHO-approved immunisation certificates for yellow fever, small pox and polio that were once a requisite for international travellers), a mobile app or a QR code.
When will vaccine passports be available?
At this point, there’s no concrete timeline, as the very concept of a vaccine passport is still up for debate. However, several companies are already working on different versions that could launch over the next few months. Among them is a new digital health verification app designed by the Temasek-founded startup Affinidi, which Singapore Airlines started trialling last week on flights from Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Passengers who choose to take their COVID-19 tests at select clinics in the two cities are given digital or physical health certificates bearing QR codes, which can then be scanned via the app by airport check-in staff and immigration authorities to verify the authenticity of the documents and to ensure that travellers meet the requirements for entry into Singapore.
Meanwhile, the CommonPass app, developed by the Geneva-based non-profit Commons Project Foundation in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, has been in trial use since October on international flights with airlines like Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, and United. Connected to a few hundred health systems, CommonPass not only informs users of what tests (and soon, immunisation records) they will need for their upcoming trips, but also generates a scannable QR code that travellers can present to the relevant authorities. That’s besides IBM’s Digital Health Pass programme, the IATA Travel Pass by the International Air Transport Association, and more.
As regards the paper iteration of a vaccine passport, the WHO has said that that would necessitate approval by its nearly 200 member states and would likely not materialise until the COVID-19 vaccine is extensively available, which could take until 2022 or 2023.
What are some of the quandaries in implementing vaccine passports?
Questions over security
One major concern is, understandably, about protecting personal data, such as your date of birth, home address and other sensitive information. Although developers of these digital vaccine passports can promise (and have promised) that the data gathered via the apps are secure, there will always exist the possibility that hackers, private actors and even state entities might use such technology to establish systems of social control and surveillance over targeted sectors of the population.
Inequality of access
Employing digital health passes also runs the risk of dividing societies into the haves and have-nots, given that almost half of the global population does not have access to either the internet or smartphone technology. Not to mention that such apps could cause difficulties for those with limited or no access to COVID-19 vaccines to work, travel, and more.
Lack of standardisation
With over 50 different vaccines in use, trial or development around the world, it stands to reason that there are not-insignificant issues to iron out when it comes to setting up universal vaccine credentials. For instance, what would happen if a Chinese citizen who’s received the Sinopharm inoculation arrives in Singapore, when that particular vaccine hasn’t yet been approved by the government? Harmonising systems across borders would mean navigating a hodgepodge of languages, databases, and privacy laws, and all parties involved would have to willingly cooperate and work together closely if vaccine passports are to be effectively implemented.
What do vaccine passports mean for travel?
Alas, you might want to hold off a splurge on travel tickets. Numerous experts have advised that it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to resuming mass travel, seeing as a lot of unknowns remain with regard to the vaccines (and indeed, the virus itself). Even though the frontrunners in the vaccine race have demonstrated a high efficacy rate (around 95% for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna formulations), it is as yet unclear how long immunity lasts after recovery from the virus or after receiving a vaccine, and it is also unclear if vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus without experiencing symptoms themselves.
Will vaccine passports eliminate the need for masks?
At present, that’s a definitive no. Not only will it take months, perhaps years, to ensure widespread distribution of the various vaccines, it will also take time to resolve the aforementioned unknowns about the vaccines. And in the meantime, we all have to continue to abide by precautionary measures such as washing or sanitising our hands regularly, practicing social distancing, and yes, wearing masks.