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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Vaccine passports: technology or ethics?

Consensus is growing about the need for governments and organizations to grant different rights to people who received a COVID-19 vaccine as they present significantly reduced risks of contamination from themselves and for others. At the same time, some analysts put forward ethical issues as giving additional rights to vaccinated people would create inequalities in terms of individual liberties.

For the secure transactions industry, what is at stake is the actual form of the so-called “vaccine passport.” All solutions now converge towards a digital ID vaccine app, running on a smartphone, although other options will have to be proposed for those not equipped with a smartphone or not willing to add this information on their communication device.

Many of us have already used an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), a small yellow booklet standardized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 1930s that constitutes a proof a traveler has received vaccination against diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, etc. The ICVP has been a requirement for years for travelers before entering certain countries. Actually, even without waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICVP was subject to counterfeiting and a fruitful business of fake certificates of vaccination had emerged. To fight this issue which concerns both health and identity, the government of Nigeria had decided in 2019 to switch to an “e-Yellow Card” containing enhanced security features that could be verified anywhere in the world by scanning the card QR-code or checking the card number on the yellow card portal.

To tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, announced on March 1st: “the Commission will present this month a legislative proposal for a ‘Digital Green Pass.’ The aim is to provide: a proof that a person has been vaccinated, the results of tests for those who couldn’t get a vaccine yet, and information on COVID-19 recovery. It will respect data protection, security and privacy.” The goal of this EU-wide digital vaccination pass is to allow travelers to present a proof of vaccination and thus skip quarantine protocols when arriving in a new country. Ursula Von der Leyen added that 70% of the adult EU population will be vaccinated by the end of the summer. Analysts anticipate that it would take at least three months to set up a viable system, both technically and logistically.

Besides European Union projects, several EU members have already made decisions on upcoming health certificates: Greece unveiled a digital vaccination certificate in February for those who have received two doses of the vaccine, and the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal are currently issuing or asking for vaccine certificates. Other countries, such as France or Germany, consider that easing travel for people who have been inoculated would discriminate against others who are still waiting.

Sweden and Denmark governments announced they would start the development of digital vaccine certificates, to be used for travel and potentially more: while both governments are waiting for more research into whether vaccinated people could still transmit the virus, their goal is to use digital vaccine certificates as means to get back to normal life. However, while Ursula von der Leyen in January backed the idea of using certificates to identify people who have had the jab, she added that “whether that gives a priority or access to certain goods, this is a political and legal decision that has to be discussed on the European level,” according to France24.

There are now dozens of industry players ready to deploy a digital ID vaccine passport. Already various governments and airlines are developing their own apps to allow vaccinated travelers to avoid mandatory quarantining and testing. An international traveler may end up having to comply with different rules enforced by different apps. This demonstrates the need for an internationally standardized approach, but we all know this usually takes time and efforts.

For instance, Vision-Box, a Portugal-based industry leader in biometric recognition, digital identity and seamless travel management solutions, just announced a partnership with US-based digital identity innovator, Airside Mobile, best known for the Mobile Passport App. The partnership offers an enhanced platform for all stakeholders along the travel experience involved in managing verified identity credentials, including trusted health data. Typically, Airside Mobile Passport app allows travelers to choose when and with whom they share ID credentials such as their name, date of birth, driving license details or COVID-19 vaccine status.

However, many analysts consider the vaccine passport project is an “ethical and legal minefield,” according to The question of ethical standards and privacy issues is raised by Melinda Mills, director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford: “A central ethical concern is to first determine who you would exclude if certificates were introduced. There are certain people who are unable to have vaccines for medical reasons such as those with allergies or pregnant women. In some countries, certain ethnic minorities are more vaccine hesitant, which would mean that this group could be inadvertently excluded.” Chris Dye, professor of Epidemiology at Oxford's Department of Zoology, points out in the report published by the SET-C (Science in Emergencies Tasking: COVID-19) group at the UK Royal Society, that although some headway has been made on ethical, privacy and technical issues, there's a long way to go:at the most basic level, we are still gathering data on exactly how effective each vaccine is in preventing infection and transmission and on how long the immunity will last,” he wrote. There are also the legal ramifications. Vaccine passports will contain sensitive personal information so there must be clearly defined parameters such as purpose limitation and data minimization.

The European Commission, along with national governments will have to be fast in solving these ethical questions. Otherwise, other players, such as private entities or foreign governments, may be faster in coming up with a solution.

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