What is a Covid-19 vaccine passport? Here's how these health passes will help facilitate international travel

They are currently in development, and have, so far, taken the form of mobile apps


                            What is a Covid-19 vaccine passport? Here's how these health passes will help facilitate international travel
(Getty Images)

The global economy has been severely disrupted by Covid-19, with the virus wreaking devastation on the travel industry in particular. In December 2020, hope returned as countries such as the US approved the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines. Speculations are now suggesting that passengers may need so-called “Covid-19 vaccine passports” in the future if they want to travel. 

What are they?

Also referred to as health passports, vaccine passports are mainly intended for international travel. The aim is to speed up the revival of international travel. They are currently in development, and have, so far, taken the form of mobile apps.

The aim of such apps is to speed up the revival of international travel (Getty Images)

What do we know about them?

IATA Travel Pass: The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is working on a mobile app -- referred to as the IATA Travel Pass -- that will help travelers easily and securely manage their travel in line with any government requirements for Covid-19 testing or vaccine information. The main priority is to get people traveling again safely, emphasizes IATA.

The Association says that it will allow authorized labs and test centers to securely send test results or vaccination certificates to passengers. It will enable passengers to create a “digital passport”, verify their test/vaccination meets the regulations and share test or vaccination certificates with authorities to facilitate travel. It is scheduled for release early in the first quarter of 2021 for Android and iPhone.

For the iPhone, it will use the “secure enclave” features of Apple devices and a similar security encryption technology for Android. “A secure system to manage Covid-19 testing or vaccination information is critical. The IATA Travel Pass is a solution that both travelers and governments can trust. And it is being built with data security, convenience, and verification as top priorities,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, in a statement on December 16, 2020.

The pass stores encrypted data, including verified test or vaccination results on the mobile device of the traveler. The traveler controls what information is shared from their phone with airlines and authorities. No central database or data repository is storing the information. “By keeping travelers 100% in control of their information, the highest standards for data privacy are ensured. IATA Travel Pass is also built on the highest standards of data protection laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR),” explains IATA.

The IATA Travel Pass is a mobile app that will enable passengers to create a “digital passport”, verify their test/vaccination meets the regulations and share test or vaccination certificates with authorities to facilitate travel (Getty Images)

Currently, the main vaccination requirement for entry into some countries is for yellow fever. Under the International Health Regulations, this is managed by the “yellow card” or International Certificate of Vaccination and Prophylaxis. “The World Health Organization (WHO) is developing digital standards that will make these vastly more secure and will dramatically reduce fraud. When ready, the IATA Travel Pass will be able to accommodate such new global standards,” notes IATA. 

Contactless travel is being touted as another key element of the IATA Travel Pass. It will involve the integration of contactless travel processes to make travel more convenient and enhance biosafety. 

CommonPass: It is a health pass, and the project is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and The Commons Project, a nonprofit. The CommonPass framework will allow individuals to access their lab results and vaccination records, and consent to have that information used to validate their Covid-19 status without revealing any other underlying personal health information.

Lab results and vaccination records can be accessed through existing health data systems, national or local registries, or personal digital health records (Apple Health for iOS, CommonHealth for Android). Apple Health and CommonHealth will let individuals store their health records securely and privately on their phones, entirely under their control.

“The framework will assess whether the individual’s lab test results or vaccination records come from a trusted source, and satisfy the health screening requirements of the country they want to enter. The framework delivers a simple yes/no answer as to whether the individual meets the current entry criteria, but the underlying health information stays in the individual’s control. The framework is being designed such that it can be accessed directly through other apps and services,” explain researchers.

The first CommonPass trials were completed in October 2020 with Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong and Singapore), and United Airlines (London and New York). Government observers of the trials included the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the United Kingdom Border Force and Ministry for Transport.

The first CommonPass trials were completed in October 2020 with Cathay Pacific and United Airlines (Getty Images)

CommonTrust Network airlines JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic were scheduled to begin the roll-out of CommonPass in December 2020 on select flights departing from New York, Boston, London and Hong Kong. The goal of the trials is to demonstrate to governments that they can rely on CommonPass and the framework to assess the health of incoming travelers as they implement risk-based border reopening strategies.

They are not ‘immunity passports’

According to experts, a vaccine passport is not an immunity passport. It is currently unclear how long immunity lasts after recovering from coronavirus or after receiving a vaccine. There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.

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