You’ve likely heard that companies are now developing vaccine passports—also called immunity passports or vaccine certificates—to verify a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status, latest test result, or antibody test result. So you may soon be asked to scan a QR code on your smartphone to attend sporting events or concerts, cross borders, fly commercial airlines, and even enter a restaurant or your office building.
The idea is that this digital code will serve as proof of a vaccinated person’s limited risk to others and therefore be the key to returning to some form of prepandemic life. But some experts and organizations have concerns about privacy—as well as the passports’ potential to further inequities in the U.S. and globally.
“The vaccine is a fundamental way to end the pandemic,” Stefan Baral, M.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells SELF. So vaccine passports have been accelerated to incentivize getting vaccinated and ultimately increase vaccine coverage in the population. They can also be a way to protect essential workers by minimizing the risk they’re exposed to from the public, he says.
And while this may seem like a buzzy new concept, requiring proof of vaccination isn’t a new approach to public health, Brenden Parent, J.D., assistant professor in the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.
For instance, the World Health Organization created the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, commonly referred to as a “yellow card.” This certificate has been in use since the 1950s as an official record of required vaccines, like those for yellow fever or cholera, for international travelers. In the U.S., the vaccine passports are similar to state mandates for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine in children going to public schools, or workplaces that require an annual influenza vaccine.
What will vaccine passports actually be like?
On a global scale, the WHO has a Smart Vaccination Certificate Working Group that’s tasked with establishing global standards for those certificates. In the U.S., the Biden administration says that it won’t be authorizing a national passport app, according to CBS News, thereby leaving the task to the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and individual states.
Because there are currently no global or national standards for vaccine passport regulations, they may look and function slightly differently depending on where you are, at least for now. But in the future they will likely be more standardized once those regulations exist.
For instance, New York has already launched the Excelsior Pass, a pilot program using an app developed by IBM. The app provides a digital credential, similar to boarding passes on airline apps, that is now required for entrance at venues such as Madison Square Garden.
Walmart is partnering with the Vaccine Credential Initiative, which is a group of tech companies and nonprofits (including Microsoft and the Mayo Clinic) working together to build and standardize vaccine credentials. As a result of this partnership, those who get their vaccines at Walmart or Sam’s Club pharmacies will be able to easily report their health data to several passport apps, including one from airport security company Clear.
Why are some experts worried about the inevitable rise of vaccine passports?
Although vaccine passports are not a new idea, these are unique in that they’re being built into the architecture of our smartphones. NYU Langone’s Parent is opposed to the digital passport and is in favor of a physical credential—more like a driver’s license—because the digital option “introduces a lot more issues, including data privacy issues,” he says.
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