Travel industry presses Biden on COVID vaccine passports

Jessica Wong

As more and more people are getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, concerns are being raised about whether so-called “COVID passports” will be required to travel or attend events or other social gatherings. The Biden administration has said the government shouldn’t play a role in designing the requirements — but tech […]

As more and more people are getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, concerns are being raised about whether so-called “COVID passports” will be required to travel or attend events or other social gatherings.

The Biden administration has said the government shouldn’t play a role in designing the requirements — but tech companies and travel-related trade groups are developing and testing versions of the passes and some countries have already started using them.

But while advocates say these tools will hasten the return to the “normal” pre-pandemic world, others have raised ethical and logistical issues around having to prove one has immunity.

Here’s what you need to know about “COVID passports.”

What is a COVID passport?

A COVID passport would be documentation that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some versions would also allow a user to show they have recently tested negative for the virus.

The information would be stored on a mobile device, such as on an app or as part of a digital wallet, that one would be able to pull up to show officials.

Do COVID passports already exist?

The International Air Transport Association has developed a smartphone app called “Travel Pass,” that compiles a traveler’s vaccination status and test results into QR codes.

Emirates and Etihad Airways have said they would use the app, while American Airlines accepts a similar version called “VeriFLY.”

IBM is developing another, called a “Digital Health Pass,” one of several initiatives from the private sector.

The European Union last week proposed a digital health pass and Denmark announced in February that it would work with businesses to develop a COVID passport.

Alexandre de Juniac, director general and chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association.
Alexandre de Juniac, director general and chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association.
Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Would COVID passports be used beyond air-travel?

The prospect that COVID passports would be used for access to sporting events, concerts or other social gatherings does exist.

Israel is already using a “green passport” to ensure that only people who have their shots or have recovered from COVID-19 can attend public events, such as concerts.

New York state also tested an “Excelsior Pass” at Barclay’s Center and Madison Square Garden with the aim that vaccinations or a recent negative COVID test will lead to more theaters, businesses and stadiums to reopen. 

Do travel groups want COVID passports?

The travel industry took a beating during the pandemic and airlines are hoping that COVID passports could push governments to ease restrictions.

In the US, airlines and the tourism-related industry are pressing the Biden administration to develop comprehensive standards for a vaccine passports and lift some restrictions.

The groups argue that a health passport is just a common sense extension of existing policy that requires travels entering the US to have a negative coronavirus test.

But the Biden administration is staying out of it for now.

“It’s not the role of the government to hold that data and to do that,” said Andy Slavitt, a White House virus-response adviser. “It needs to be private, the data should be secure, the access to it should be free, it should be available both digitally and in paper and in multiple languages.”

What are the risks of COVID passports?

The available vaccines are most effective at preventing serious illness, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that people who’ve been inoculated could still spread the virus.

The World Health Organization has thrown cold water on the idea of vaccine passports, saying they wouldn’t be a guarantee that a traveler is immune from spreading the virus.

There are still more “critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission,” WHO said.

A flight crew member wears a face mask while crossing a street on the arrivals level outside Los Angeles International Airport.
A flight crew member wears a face mask while crossing a street on the arrivals level outside Los Angeles International Airport.
Patrick T. Fallow/AFP via Getty Images

What are the objections to COVID passports?

Critics say the tools would primarily benefit wealthier people, who are more likely to be vaccinated quickly and to have smarthphones.

Lisa Eckenwiler, a health ethics professor George Mason University, said there was a particular potential for unfairness if the passes expand to workplaces and schools.

“It’s going to be the wealthy, the privileged, who are going to get to fly around, and other people won’t have access to that,” she said.

Consumers may also be worried about privacy and sharing health information that could be vulnerable to hacking.

“When it comes down to it, people are going to ask themselves, is sharing sensitive information worth the trade-off for a leisure trip?” asked Stephen Beck of management consultancy cg42.

“For many, the answer will be no.”

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