A year after the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic, vaccines are proving to be a silver bullet for opening up economies and resuming normal life.
People are ready to travel. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration documented more than 1 million airport screenings every day for the last 18 days of March.
But not so fast.
A debate is raging over whether people will be allowed to take flights using new “vaccine passports” that would help prove inoculation of travelers. This could be a huge influence in encouraging tourists to resume trips and could prove a massive boon to a travel industry that has suffered dramatic losses during the pandemic.
The new form of passport is also being suggested for other basic activities such as attending concerts, getting into hotels, pubs and sports events or even just going to work.
Here is what you need to know about a vaccine passport:
A vaccine passport is not a new idea. People already travel with vaccine cards for yellow fever. Some countries also require proof of vaccination for diseases such as tuberculosis.
Experts have questioned whether a coronavirus vaccine passport needs to be different from the vaccine card system already in place. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, thinks they should not be different and should not be seen as a free pass to getting out of wearing a mask or social distancing.
Covid-19 vaccinations are already paving the way for a return to normalcy across several industries, but travel would likely benefit the most. A vaccine passport would make travelers feel more comfortable and would likely help reopen the U.S. to international visitors.
Coronavirus vaccine passports could help provide a feeling of safety while traveling, but health officials say it is too soon to know if such a feeling is warranted.
There has been mounting concern from lawmakers, activists and conservatives across the world about the prospects of a vaccine passport being used to deny people basic rights to freedom.
In the U.S., top-ranking Republicans are opposing digital vaccine passports that would allow businesses to check if customers are inoculated against covid-19. In the U.K. some 70 lawmakers have called the move to require covid status certifications as “divisive and discriminatory”.
The White House is working with private companies to develop covid passports for people in the U.S. inoculated against the virus. The government is working to set standards for Americans to prove that they have been vaccinated as businesses try to reopen, travel begins to pick up and sports teams plan to return.
Andy Slavitt, senior adviser for the White House Covid-19 Task Force, said that the U.S. does not plan to create such a passport. Instead, Slavitt said that states can develop their own and the federal government is only helping to develop standards for equity and privacy that these programs need to uphold. New York has begun developing its own digital certification, known as the Excelsior Pass, which could allow residents into public establishments.
A video surfaced of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) claiming, without evidence, that a vaccine passport is “Biden’s mark of the beast,” a reference to the Bible’s Book of Revelations and Christian prophecy about the end of the world. The Biden administration refuted the claim and said it is not pursuing a vaccine passport.
Having the vaccine passport would not mean that the covid-19 regulations can be ignored. With covid-19 mutating into more transmissible variants and new infections, hospitalizations and deaths are rising. Accelerating vaccinations while continuing to follow public health guidance is more important than ever, said Dr. Leana Wen, a visiting public health professor at the George Washington University and former Baltimore city public health commissioner. Even though people are fatigued with the pandemic, the debate about vaccine passports is important, Wen said.
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While private industry is already looking at ways to develop such a system, Wen said the federal government needs to establish minimum standards to protect people’s private health information and to monitor for forged vaccination cards already selling for hundreds of dollars on the black market.
The vaccine passport would come as a scannable code that users could easily bring up on their smartphone. Printable paper copies would also be available to those without that technology.
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