In Brief

Vaccine Passports: What to Know

Some governments and businesses are starting to use digital and paper passes that certify a person has been immunized against COVID-19, spurring debate over the ethics of vaccine passports.

As COVID-19 vaccinations pick up in some countries, debate is growing over the use of “vaccine passports”—digital or paper documentation that verifies an individual has been immunized against the new coronavirus. Officials are considering these vaccination certificates not only for international travel, but also for conferences, concerts, and sporting events, and even for day-to-day activities, including going to gyms, restaurants, work, and school. But their use could complicate vaccination efforts, experts warn, and the patchwork of different vaccine passports could cause a global headache. 

Are vaccine passports already in use?

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Before the vaccine rollout, negative COVID-19 tests were required to travel to many countries. Some nations ordered travelers to quarantine in addition to presenting a negative test. This is largely still the case, even for those who are fully vaccinated.

Concert attendees at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel, prepare to present their digital Green Passes, which certify they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Concert attendees prepare to present their Green Passes, which certify they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

However, a few places are already permitting vaccine passes as tickets to travel abroad, even as dozens of countries still lack any vaccine doses. Israel, with the highest vaccination rate per capita in the world, launched its Green Pass program in February to allow fully vaccinated citizens entry to concert venues, gyms, hotels, and restaurants, among other places. Now, Israelis can use the Green Pass to enter Cyprus and Greece. Belize and Iceland welcome any foreign travelers who provide proof that they’ve been immunized, without having them quarantine or present negative COVID-19 tests. 

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Other countries are planning to follow suit. Thailand, which relies heavily on tourism and was economically devastated by pandemic restrictions, says it hopes to install a vaccine passport policy for international visitors by the summer. The European Union has proposed its own version to help ease restrictions on movement across the bloc, while China made the controversial announcement that it will prioritize visas for travelers who are vaccinated with a Chinese-made vaccine.

Who’s developing them?

A growing number of tech companies, nonprofit organizations, universities, and other groups are developing these digital health passes. The International Air Transport Association, which sets global airline standards, created a digital travel pass for passengers to verify their COVID-19 tests and vaccinations; several airlines are piloting it on flights. The World Economic Forum partnered with the Commons Project, a New York– and Geneva-based nonprofit supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, on a similar passport called CommonPass. Also in the mix is one by the U.S. tech company IBM.

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What’s the debate?

Advocates say vaccine passports could help revive still-hurting economies and reduce transmission of the virus, though scientists say it’s too early to tell if the currently available vaccines for COVID-19 curb its spread.

But there are many concerns about uneven policy on vaccine certification:

Unequal distribution and access. Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts have warned such passports could further encourage vaccine nationalism, whereby countries that can afford to purchase vaccines prioritize immunizing their own populations over sharing doses with poorer countries. And as the pandemic has accentuated inequalities among poor and wealthy countries, there are similar fears of increasing the divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Accessibility is another challenge, particularly for digital passports that rely on smartphone applications.

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Vaccine acceptance. Some health experts worry that people could be more hesitant about vaccination if they view it as government-mandated. In the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration said the federal government will not require vaccine passports, though private businesses and schools could do so. For decades, all U.S. states have required students to get certain vaccinations, but many allow religious and philosophical exemptions. Other experts counter that vaccine passports could actually incentivize vaccine-hesitant individuals to get their shots so they can resume travel and other activities.

Privacy and cybersecurity. Tech companies developing digital health passes are working to ensure individuals’ health information would be secure, but experts warn that these apps could be easy targets for cybercriminals. In a statement this week, the EU’s top privacy regulators stressed that a bloc-wide digital vaccination certificate should only store personal health data until the pandemic’s end, among other safeguards. 

What are the prospects for a global COVID-19 vaccine passport?

There’s no globally standardized approach to COVID-19 vaccine passports, and the likelihood that countries will soon reach a consensus on one is low, particularly while global access to the vaccines is limited and given the differences in national regulatory approval. (No single COVID-19 vaccine has been approved worldwide.) The WHO has discouraged the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports, noting ethical concerns and the lack of evidence about whether the vaccines prevent transmission.

But governments could agree on an international standard down the road, and global vaccination certificates have been done before. The International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, created by the WHO, has for decades allowed travelers to prove they’ve been immunized against diseases such as yellow fever and cholera to enter certain countries. 

In the meantime, several different initiatives are underway to form international criteria and tools to lessen confusion as the world moves toward a new normal. These include one led by the WHO, one by the Biden administration, and one by the Commons Project.

Mia Speier contributed to this In Brief.

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