As the COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues to gather pace across the world, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is now growing interest in the adoption of a vaccine passport, which may aid in restarting more domestic activities and even international travel.
What Is a Vaccine Passport?
A COVID-19 vaccine passport is a record that proves that you have been vaccinated against COVID-19. It may also show that you have tested negative for the virus.
Despite its name, a vaccine passport is not an actual passport book. Generally, it is an electronic record of your vaccination status, possibly in the form of a QR code, that is easily accessible through a smartphone or stored on the device. However, the record can also be printed out.
A vaccine passport is not to be confused with a travel bubble. Though both are strategies aimed at restarting international travel, a travel bubble is an exclusive partnership between two or more countries that have demonstrated considerable success in containing the COVID-19 outbreak.
Although the exact arrangements in a travel bubble would vary, people from countries that have a travel bubble with each other will generally be allowed to travel freely between these countries without having to undergo quarantine on arrival.
An example of a travel bubble would be the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble.
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Benefits of Vaccine Passports
Vaccine passports have been proposed as a measure to promote the reopening of a country’s borders to the rest of the world.
Vaccinations offer protection against the virus and thus, by showing proof of vaccination using a vaccine passport, one may be able to bypass mandatory quarantine requirements. This loosens travel restrictions and may even relax the requirement currently present in many countries that incoming travellers have to undergo a swab test and test negative before being allowed into the country.
Easing travel restrictions will also provide much-needed relief to the tourism and hospitality sectors, which have been badly hit by the pandemic, thereby boosting the economy as well.
How to Get a Vaccine Passport
The design and features of vaccine passports may vary from country to country. However, the process of obtaining one is generally the same.
One must first be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or test negative for the virus (depending on the country’s requirements for issuing a vaccine passport). One can then download the passport application to his or her mobile phone and create an account using biometric authentication such as thumbprint or face ID.
After the relevant certifications have been uploaded, the passport will be ready for use.
Recognition of Vaccine Passports in Singapore
Presently, nothing has been set in stone regarding the use of vaccine passports in Singapore.
According to the Ministry of Health, the data regarding the duration of the vaccine’s protection, and its effectiveness in preventing transmission of COVID-19, has been encouraging thus far. However, more data is needed to assess if current rules, such as testing and Stay-Home Notice (SHN) requirements, can be relaxed for vaccinated individuals.
Furthermore, as most countries have also just started vaccinations, the recognition of a vaccine certification may take a while.
That said, Singapore has accepted the International Air Travel Association (IATA) mobile travel pass for entry into Singapore from 1 May 2021 onwards.
The IATA Travel Pass is a mobile application that helps travellers store relevant COVID-19 test results or vaccine certificates that will allow them to enter the destination country.
To enter Singapore for example, travellers have to obtain a negative result on the COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The PCR test is conducted through swabs and can show if one has been infected with COVID-19 by detecting the presence of viral components.
Using the IATA Travel Pass, travellers will be able to share their PCR test results with their airline and at the immigration checkpoints at Changi Airport before entering Singapore.
The authorities are also currently working on further enhancements to the travel pass, such as:
- Enabling QR code scanning for the transmission of health credentials, and
- The inclusion of digital vaccination certificates in the travel pass.
Positions of Other Countries on Vaccine Passports
China was among the first in the world to introduce its COVID-19 vaccine passport. Its vaccine passport shows that a traveller has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as the traveller’s PCR and antibody test results.
The antibody test, unlike the PCR test, requires blood samples and detects the presence of antibodies against COVID-19. Antibodies are generated one to two weeks after infection and can demonstrate COVID-19 immunity.
The digital version of China’s vaccine passport uses an encrypted QR code that allows the authorities to access one’s medical records. However, the vaccine passport can also be printed out for use as a hardcopy document.
Obtaining the vaccine passport was not made mandatory upon its launch. This was because only a small percentage of China’s population had been vaccinated at that time, although this may change in the future.
United States of America (USA)
In the USA, there is no federal mandate for vaccine passports, nor are there any plans for a vaccine database, at this time. It is up to individual states to decide whether vaccine passports are to be rolled out.
Each state’s vaccine passport (if available) may also vary in feature and form as they are being developed separately by different private companies, though they may have largely similar functions.
The first state to introduce a vaccine passport was New York. Known as the “Excelsior Pass”, the passport may be attained if one has been fully vaccinated or has obtained a negative PCR or antigen test administered in New York.
The Excelsior Pass is stored in smartphones using the Excelsior Pass’s “Wallet App” but can also be printed out. Each pass will contain a secure QR code that will be scanned so people can gain entry to certain events and spaces, as well as gather in larger groups.
Other states that are receptive to the idea of vaccine passports include Hawaii and Illinois. However, there are also states that have decided against the usage of vaccine passports, such as Florida and Texas.
European Union (EU) countries
There have been plans for “Digital Green Certificates” to be rolled out across the EU by June, following a pilot phase in May. The Certificate will be standardised across all 27 countries in the EU, unlike in the USA.
Though officials have said that the Certificate is not a vaccine passport, it works essentially the same way. This is because the Certificate will enable people to travel freely across all countries in the EU.
It is not necessary for one to be vaccinated to get the Certificate, as it can also be obtained by testing negative for COVID-19 or by recovering from COVID-19.
The Certificate may be in a physical or digital form. Like many other vaccine passports, it also contains a QR code carrying encoded data that would be uploaded to a central system. This allows verification of the Certificate in other EU countries.
Concerns and Risks Associated With Vaccine Passports
Though vaccine passports are expected to bring great benefits, there are also concerns associated with their implementation.
As vaccines are still being rolled out progressively, there are those who have yet to be vaccinated. Some may also be unable to be vaccinated due to health reasons, such as having previously experienced allergic reactions to other vaccines. These individuals will therefore be unable to obtain a vaccine passport.
Additionally, some vaccines may not be recognised in certain countries. For instance, Chinese vaccines are presently not approved in the USA or Western Europe. This may render some individuals’ vaccine passports, as obtained after being vaccinated using a particular COVID-19 vaccine, invalid.
Denying such individuals the opportunity to travel when they have good reasons for doing so simply because they do not have a vaccine passport (or a recognised one) may come across as unfair. There is thus a need to avoid discriminating against these individuals.
The EU has addressed such issues by allowing these individuals to travel within the EU if they have recently tested negative for COVID-19, but this may not be the case for all other countries.
Data privacy concerns
Given the sensitive nature of health data that may potentially be accessed and stored with the usage of vaccine passports, it is unsurprising that some have expressed concerns regarding data privacy.
However, developers of vaccine passports have been quick to address these concerns. For instance, IATA has maintained that the IATA Travel Pass technology is decentralised. This means that there is no central database and all the necessary information is stored securely on the traveller’s phone.
Travellers using the IATA Travel Pass thus have greater autonomy over when and with whom they wish to share their vaccination status or test results.
Risk of fraud
As the adoption of vaccine passports increases, the risk of related fraudulent activity occurring increases as well. This is because there are people who have yet to be vaccinated, or do not want to be vaccinated, but still wish to enjoy the benefits of having a vaccine passport, such as being able to travel overseas.
Consequently, they may resort to underhanded means to obtain proof of vaccination, such as forgery. There are also numerous websites on the dark web offering false documents for sale.
Some commentators have thus suggested that the certification in the vaccine passport should be verifiable and difficult to forge.
Vaccination does not equal immunity
Vaccine passports may provide a false sense of security as it does not guarantee that travellers are “safe”. This is because vaccination does not guarantee immunity against COVID-19.
For example, those who have been fully vaccinated may still be susceptible to the virus. While vaccination greatly reduces the risk of infection, the strength of immune response varies across individuals. Some individuals’ immune systems may not be able to mount an adequate response even after these individuals have been vaccinated.
Additionally, it has yet to be seen how long immunity against the virus will last. It is also possible for vaccinated individuals who have been infected to still transmit the virus to other individuals.
All this means is that it is entirely possible for a person with a vaccine passport to still become infected with and transmit COVID-19 to others, and especially across borders if they are travelling overseas.
Overall, despite the various risks, the use of vaccine passports may bring us one step closer to normalcy by easing border restrictions for more international travel to take place.
As more people around the world become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it is likely that there will be a more widespread use of vaccine passports. However, it remains to be seen if there will be an international standard for vaccine passports, or a standardised vaccine passport that will be adopted by all countries.