Vaccine passports: A solution for tourism, or another problem?

While vaccine passports hold one of the keys to getting the travel industry up in the air again, they bring with them a host of concerns related to data security, the emergence of new COVID-19 variants, and vaccine equity.

  • Industry insights suggest that around 24.2% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • As the pace of vaccination escalates around the globe, the EU, Israel, Russia, UK, China, Japan, and Bahrain have released their rules for vaccine passports to allow cross-border movement of people.
  • However, not everyone is sold on this idea. For example, critics point out that vaccines are futile against new variants of COVID-19 and discriminatory against travellers from LDCs.
  • Going forward, countries need to bolster efforts to make vaccine equity a reality and look for alternate solutions like requiring a COVID-19 test in the absence of vaccination.

TPCI-vaccine-passport

Source: Shutterstock

While countries all over the world are still embroiled in the debate around extending IPR waivers to COVID-19 vaccines, another equally important discourse has begun to gather momentum. Industry insights suggest that around 24.2% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. To put this into perspective, around 3.22 billion doses have been administered globally, and 35.77 million are now administered each day.

Given the fact that people all over the world are being inoculated, countries have started becoming more confident and are considering opening their borders to foreign travellers in an attempt to revive their economies, which in the past 2 years have been severely battered by the pandemic. As countries gear up to welcome foreign nationals after a lull of almost 2 years, many of them have started demanding vaccine passports.

Vaccine passports: An old solution to a new problem?

A ‘vaccine passport’ is an evidence that the traveller has tested negative for or has been protected against certain infections (in this case COVID-19). It can be digital, like a phone app, or physical like a paper certificate. This idea is not a novel one, for, in the past, the World Health Organization (WHO) created a medical passport called a ‘yellow card’ from certain countries to be carried as proof that they have been inoculated against diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and rubella.

A number of countries are considering this idea. For example, the European Union has come out with a Digital Green Certificate that will essentially provide a record of the holder’s vaccination and COVID-19 test/infection history. Similarly, Israel, Russia, UK, China, Japan, and Bahrain are also in the process of having a vaccine passport. Some universities & companies in the US are pressing the government for having the document. Further, the International Air Transport Association has supported this idea, stating that it will be crucial in the revival of the global travel and hospitality sector. Explaining the need for the vaccine passport, Vivek Agarwal, Partner – Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare (IGH), KPMG In India states:

The pace of vaccination around the globe has resulted in an upward trend in international passenger traffic and is expected to further rise in the next few months. Vaccine or immunity passports are being adopted to curb the spread of COVID-19 and also help in instilling confidence in people from the travel and hospitality industry to reopen their businesses. 

Not only industry bodies, but many citizens around the world also believe that vaccine passports are the order of the day. According to an Ipsos-WEF Survey, of over 21,000 people in 28 countries, 78% of the respondents strongly support requiring travellers to carry COVID passports. Informants from Malaysia (92%) & Peru (90%) were the strongest advocates of this idea. Further, 66% of the respondents felt that vaccine passports may be in extensive use in their country by the end of this year, though there were wide variations in opinions ranging from 81% in India and Peru to fewer than a third (32%) in Russia.

What people around the world think about vaccine passports?

Parameter Strongly agree Somewhat agree Somewhat disagree Strongly disagree Not sure Total agree
All travellers entering the country should have a vaccine passport 52% 25% 9% 9% 5% 78%
They would be effective in making travel and large events safe 39% 34% 11% 10% 6% 73%
All large public venues should require vaccine passports 38% 30% 13% 14% 6% 67%
I expect that they will be widely used in the country by the year end 33% 33% 14% 10% 10% 66%
Shops, restaurants & offices should require a vaccine support 26% 29% 20% 18% 7% 55%

Source: Ipsos – World Economic Forum

Vaccine passports: A futile exercise?

However, there are a number of reasons why some countries are not very convinced with this idea yet. To begin with, the current COVID-19 vaccines are not be very helpful in mitigating the new variants of coronavirus. For example, according to a study, the Pfizer vaccine had an efficacy of 33% against Delta plus variant after a single shot, and 88% after both doses; while the AstraZeneca vaccine had an efficacy of 33% against Delta after a single shot, and 60% after both doses.

Another area of concern is that different countries could have different requirements or making the vaccine passports work. For example, the EU’s Digital Green Certificate failed to recognize India’s AstraZeneca (AZ) jab made by the Serum Institute – under the brand-names Covishield and COVAXIN®, India’s indigenous COVID-19 vaccine by Bharat Biotech. (Some of the vaccines recognized by the EU’s medical regulator are Vaxzevria, Comirnaty, Spikevax & Janssen).

The reason why the EU did not approve travellers with these vaccines is that it isn’t receiving any doses from the site in India where it’s manufactured. After the SII & the Indian government intervened, however, Austria, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland (not an EU member) have accommodated India’s concerns and agreed to allow travellers with Covishield.

Another objection that some people have voiced relates to concerns over data sharing and privacy. The coalition of tech firms puts sensitive health data of users into multiple hands, increasing the chances of data threats and cyber security attacks. For example, Aarogya Setu, India’s very own contact-tracing app was criticised of accessing and storing user data via Bluetooth and IP address, putting its million users’ privacy, autonomy, and dignity at risk. Louis-James Davis, Chief Executive of V-Health Passport, a secure ID and contact tracing platform sheds some light on this:

The problem with a QR code is that all the owner’s sensitive data is stored within it. Anyone who can read that code can access that data. At the same time there are interoperability issues, as one system doesn’t necessarily generate a QR code that’s read consistently everywhere.

TPCI-vaccine-passport_graph

Source: Ipsos – World Economic Forum

Further, only 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. That’s why countries like India have said that vaccine passports would be discriminatory to people in the developing world since such countries have so far been able to vaccinate a far smaller share of its population than the wealthier countries. Dr Harsh Vardhan, the Union Health Minister, cited the example of the US, where at least 40%-plus proportion of the eligible population has received full vaccination against India, where just over 3% people have got both their doses. He pointed out at the recent G7 Summit:

Considering the fact of the lower levels of vaccination of the population in developing countries in contrast to the developed countries and given the still-unaddressed issues related to equitable and affordable access, supply and distribution of safe and effective vaccines, India would propose that the implementation of a vaccine passport will be hugely discriminatory and disadvantageous to the developing countries.

Finally, the WHO has also not supported this idea. In addition to it being skeptical about the efficacy of vaccines and preferential vaccination of travellers resulting in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk, it has expressed concern that vaccine passports may prompt people to assume exemption from masking and social distancing.

The way forward

While vaccine passports may not be a worldwide phenomenon all over the globe, they may become popular across a significant number of countries. Therefore, proper care must be taken to ensure that concerns related to data privacy are addressed by the concerned authorities. One useful solution could be to create rules and impactful penalties for those organizations which misuse vaccination data that belongs to our citizens. Another one could be that data sharing should be legally backed.

In addition, some other measures could be explored in case of the absence of vaccination. Fenil Bhayani, MD, 99DESTINATIONS, opines that governments could explore marketing and promoting their states aggressively, roping in celebrities to endorse the states, attracting people for “wellness tourism”, easing travel curbs, coming up with travel vouchers and promoting touchless travel. Further, Jyoti Mayal, President, Travel Agents Association of India, suggests:

Vaccine passports can be a great way to boost the confidence of travellers. However, in the absence of vaccine passports, travellers can have RT PCR tests prior to boarding the flight and after reaching their destination.

Lastly, in order to ensure global vaccine equity, efforts must be made to ramp up production of vaccines by collaborating with foreign companies and the governments must reduce regulatory procedures in order to enhance the production and distribution of vaccines. Countries may consider declaring vaccines as public goods to ensure maximum reach of vaccination programmes, as profit maximisation should be the last thing on our minds at this juncture.

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