As more people receive COVID-19 vaccines, questions remain around returning to activities that have been restricted due to the pandemic. Enter the controversial idea of “vaccine passports.”
Some believe that a nationwide vaccine passport system could help quicken the process of restoring some semblance of normalcy. There’s an expectation that carrying around vaccine data will help the country more safely and confidently resume activities, which can boost economic recovery.
The world is currently looking toward what developing a vaccine passport looks like ― and the complications that come with it. Here’s what we know so far:
What is a vaccine passport and what places may require one?
A vaccine passport is a form of verifiable proof of vaccination that would likely display the information after a bar code or QR code is scanned ― similar to how digital boarding passes work for flights, or concert tickets on your phone. The documentation would be provided by your doctor or the site where you received your vaccine.
The United Kingdom, the European Union, Israel and the state of New York have all announced initiatives that more or less try to formally certify that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and can therefore engage in previously restricted activities, such as larger events and travel.
“The concept of vaccination documentation is nothing new. Some countries require proof of certain vaccinations for entry,” said Shibani Joshi, a tech specialist and journalist based in San Francisco. “While it is unlikely that we’ll fully return to what our world was in 2019 before the pandemic, these vaccination passports could get us as close to normalcy as possible.”
Several industries have also suggested that reopening to large crowds should probably require some type of documentation of either a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination. Cruise ships are requiring such proof for passengers to board ships, and some countries and international airlines might mandate them in order to travel internationally.
“It remains unclear how vaccine passports will be deployed and access to which services will be conditioned on their use,” Sean McDonald, co-founder of Digital Public and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, wrote for Brookings TechStream on Friday.
Why is the idea of a vaccine passport so controversial?
Advocates of such a passport encourage a national, digitally streamlined way of proving whether someone has been vaccinated, but many conservatives and libertarians have resisted the idea.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Monday that he signed an executive order banning vaccine passports and preventing state and local authorities from requiring Arizona residents to show their COVID-19 vaccination status to receive public services or enter specific areas. The order does not stop private businesses or health care institutions from requiring vaccine documentation.
“The residents of our state should not be required by the government to share their private medical information,” the Republican governor tweeted. “While we strongly recommend all Arizonans get the #COVID19 vaccine, it’s not mandated in our state ― and it never will be.”
Ducey is only the latest Republican to advance the idea that such documentation would be an intrusion by the government. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order prohibiting businesses from requiring patrons to show vaccine documentation, under penalty of losing state contracts. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also announced that he opposed the idea, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an order banning state agencies and private entities receiving state funds from requiring proof of vaccination.
What this argument leaves out is the fact that most states require residents to share their private medical information when it comes to diseases like hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps and rubella ― for which people are required to show proof of vaccination in order to do some activities such as enroll in public school and travel.
In addition, every state already has what’s called an “immunization registry,” which under data-use agreements they are required to share with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to The New York Times. The agency de-identifies the vaccine information, and not all states have agreed to provide it.
Joshi said that while COVID-19 vaccine passports are still in development, the goal is to make them secure, private and limited to only confirmation of your vaccination and not your full medical record. And many companies would prefer a method of vaccine proof in order to keep customers and employees safe.
“We live in a free society where people are free to work or not, to go to concerts or not, to go to restaurants or not,” Joel White, director of the Health Innovation Alliance, told The New York Times. “And when you are dealing with a highly infectious disease that is transmissible particularly in closed spaces ― and that can kill you ― it is not unreasonable for businesses in a free society to protect their employees and protect their patrons by asking people if they have been vaccinated.”
What kind of legitimate concerns would arise from a vaccine passport?
Aside from some people’s concerns about liberty, many others have expressed credible concerns about the privacy, security and equity issues that would arise from digital vaccination passports. With states, businesses and app creators all developing their own form of a vaccine passport, the process can get muddy without set guidelines and rules for accountability. There are at least 17 vaccine passport efforts currently underway, according to a Department of Health and Human Services document obtained by The Washington Post.
“Despite the ‘passport’ moniker, there are a number of differences between requiring disclosure of vaccine status to travel internationally and requiring them to go to the grocery store. Not only is international travel well-regulated with significant public and private oversight, but there are also clear boundaries on the discretion afforded to the actors that regulate travel,” McDonald wrote.
Supporters of vaccine passports are pushing the Biden administration to become more involved by at least setting federal privacy and security standards to ensure the accuracy of records and prevent losing the public’s trust. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on April 6 that the administration would provide some form of guidance about privacy, security, discrimination and other concerns, but avoided supporting a federal vaccine passport system.
“The government is not now nor will be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Psaki said. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”
On top of privacy and security concerns, the concept of a vaccine passport has brought up ethical questions about the inequity behind vaccine access. The World Health Organization has recommended governments not roll out such technology at the moment, on the basis that it would likely further the national and global divides created by unequal access to getting vaccinated.
“If we condition participation in society based on access to a vaccine passport, and we do so now, at this moment, when at least half the U.S. population don’t have access to the vaccine ... then what you’ll see is a widening gap,” said Nita Farahany, a law professor at Duke University. “Jobs lost to the pandemic will go to people who were able to gain earlier access to the vaccines.”
Another equity issue raised by digital vaccine passports is the fact that not everyone has access to a smartphone, which is where such documentation would be stored and scanned. Keeping vaccine passports on a smartphone would expand the digital divide by excluding groups of people who are vaccinated but don’t have a way of verifying it in public and private areas.
It will likely be possible for people to print out QR codes of their information, though such a move would be difficult for those who aren’t as familiar with technology. While there isn’t much discussion yet about a potential paper option for vaccine passports, the hope is that a well-regulated proof of vaccination can be just as accessible to those without smartphones as to those with them.
I already have a vaccine card. What’s the difference between that and a vaccine passport?
The idea of a vaccine passport is, at least for now, different from the vaccine card that a recipient gets as proof that they got their shot or shots. The 4-by-3-inch card shows which COVID-19 vaccine a person received (Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson) and the date and location the shots were given.
The vaccine card helps clarify when a recipient should get their second shot, if applicable. It can also help in the case of future booster shots, which may be necessary down the road thanks to new variants of the virus. But as of now ― and unlike the proposal of a vaccine passport ― it’s not required to regularly show your vaccine card as proof of immunity.
“At this time, you do not need to carry your CDC vaccination card with you day-to-day,” Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center advises on its website. “Other than bringing it to your vaccination appointments, you can keep it in a safe location.”
While vaccine cards are our only current proof of vaccination, they are not digitized and are therefore prone to being misplaced or stolen. Experts recommend taking a photo of the front and back of your vaccine card to make sure you have a digital copy with you. Vaccine cards are also not formatted to be able to be verified by institutions like venues or airlines, and forgeries began spreading online soon after vaccines became available in the U.S.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.