Vaccine Passports: More Problematic Than Useful?
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Stewart Lyman. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than half a million people in the US and has seriously impacted our daily lives. The granting of Emergency Use Authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines has been a game changer in helping to reverse the pandemic onslaught. Demand for the vaccines currently far exceeds supply nationwide. They have become the golden ticket that can transport us back to a time when routine activities, such as attending school or taking vacations, didn’t seem fraught with danger. What’s the best way to go about re-establishing these activities? One idea that’s getting discussed seriously is giving those who have been immunized a vaccination passport (VP).
What is a vaccination passport?
Let’s start by clarifying some terminology. VPs are documents that show that someone has been given a vaccine(s) and is therefore presumed to be immune from getting and sharing that disease. These are distinct from diagnostic tests to determine if a person is or is not infected with a particular virus (PCR and viral antigen tests) or has been exposed to a virus (antibody tests). VPs are the modern day equivalents of the “letters of transit” that played a key role in the film Casablanca. They’ll enable you to travel freely.
Why give vaccine passports?
Vaccinated people are unlikely to transmit the virus that causes COVID-19 with others, though this has yet to be definitely proven. So, what’s the primary rationale for giving vaccination passports? It seems the goal is to incentivize people to get vaccinated. Folks might be more likely to seek out the vaccine if it bestows upon them certain privileges, such as being able to travel freely. While the idea might sound appealing at one level, the road to vaccine passports is pockmarked with political potholes and littered with logistical land mines.
There are a lot of important questions that need to be answered before VPs can become widespread; it’s unlikely there will be a “one size fits all” solution. What might VPs look like? Pieces of paper (that could easily be lost or counterfeited), or a digital key or document you store on your smartphone (that many older folks still don’t have)? If you lost one, how would you get it replaced? Would your vaccination records be tied to your other medical records, and if so, what kind of privacy and security protections would be needed to safeguard your data? How would the passport administrator verify that you got vaccinated in the first place? Who is responsible for correcting any errors that crop up? Given how much we’ve struggled as a nation to simply solve the scheduling of vaccinations, VPs might be significantly more difficult to manage.
Who’s going to run the program?
A coalition of health tech leaders (including Epic, the Mayo Clinic, Microsoft and Salesforce) has started the Vaccination Credential Initiative to create an internationally accepted digital health card. Its vision – as stated on its website – is “to empower individuals to obtain an encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice. Those without smartphones could receive paper printed with QR codes containing World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) verifiable credentials.” Some European countries (e.g. Denmark) are working on developing their own immunization passports, and the President of the European Union Commission has voiced support for them.
We already have a hodgepodge system designed to keep folks with COVID-19 from traveling. Many airlines are requiring proof of non-infectivity to board a plane – these are distinct from VPs. The methods adopted vary from airline to airline: United uses Travel Ready Center, American uses VeriFly while others use Common Pass. Saga cruises are the first in the UK to demand proof of vaccination, but not everyone is on board with the concept. The World Travel and Tourism Council stated its opposition to allowing travel only by those who have been vaccinated, on the grounds that it is discriminatory.
The concept of gaining advantage from one’s immunological status is not a new one. In New Orleans in the mid 19th century, great economic value was attached to those who survived the onslaught of epidemic waves of yellow fever. A mix of structural racism and a system valuing “immunocapital” ranked men and women highly if they were yellow fever survivors. Those that had not had the disease yet found it difficult to obtain work or obtain credit and women could not marry. Slaves were similarly revalued, with larger assessments attached to survivors. This legacy of viral discrimination casts a long shadow over current discussions surrounding vaccination passports.
Also problematic is the fact that not everyone will be eligible for VPs. Some people can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons but would still like to participate in whatever activities the passports enable (such as travel opportunities). These individuals will likely file complaints if they are denied VPs, arguing that they’re discriminatory in nature. Vaccine opponents will no doubt also file lawsuits seeking to block the use of VPs, claiming they represent an attack on their freedoms and personal choice.
Others may be shut out of VP programs because they don’t have the computer skills to register online, a problem that’s turned out to be widespread with the vaccinations. Don’t have any ID? In some places this prevents the most vulnerable from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and therefore VPs as well. Many Black and marginalized communities are already deeply suspicious of the medical establishment, and wary of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Restrictions that prevent these groups from participating in various societal activities because they don’t have VPs will echo the Jim Crow days of poll taxes and literacy tests that were required to vote.
VPs bring up a similar issue as mask mandates: who is going to enforce them? It is one thing for a cruise line to do so, since reservations are required and extensive paperwork needs to be filled out in advance. Who is going to keep non-vaccinated people out of restaurants or concerts that require proof of vaccination? We’ve already seen anti-maskers storm department stores, ignore requirements to wear masks on planes and even kill a security guard who confronted them.
Black market for vaccine passports
Many airlines are now requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they will let their customers fly. This has led to a black market for fake negative COVID-19 test results for those who are looking to game the system. Similarly, bogus cards claiming that the cardholder was exempt– for medical reasons – from having to wear a mask, have been manufactured and distributed. It's not hard to imagine that a similar market will emerge for VPs.
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy
Given the multitude of issues and concerns listed above, moving forward with issuing vaccination passports seems highly problematic. If the primary purpose of having VPs is to drive up immunization rates, that can be better accomplished by running public service announcements and ads illustrating how liberating it is to start doing normal activities once vaccinated. A nationwide campaign to do just that is already in the works. I personally can think of a better use for the time and money that will be spent on establishing VPs: use them to focus efforts on overcoming vaccine hesitancy in concert with combatting the high tide of online vaccine misinformation and disinformation.
About the author
Stewart Lyman is a biotechnology consultant and vaccine advocate. He lives in Seattle, WA.