Global Vaccine Passports Edge Closer, Speeding Arrival of the Next “Normal”

Vaccine Passport Travel

In the fight against COVID-19, vaccine passports are an interim step that can speed the return of some semblance of normality by allowing the rapidly growing numbers of vaccinated people to travel more easily and to attend typically crowded sporting events, concerts and religious services.

“The issue (of needing health records to move freely) isn’t distinct to the coronavirus,” Mike Joyce, client partner at the innovation expert, Theorem, told BioSpace. “If I fly to Australia, I have to apply for a visa, and if I fly to India, I need vaccines before being issued a visa.”

This is similar.

“A vaccine passport could be as simple as showing a negative PCR test (and/or vaccination),” Joyce continued.

The complication is standardization – whether a test or vaccine that is approved in the U.S. also is approved in the destination country.

For example, Bloomberg reports that foreigners entering China have received Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine have relaxed visa restrictions and less paperwork. They can skip the COVID-19 test and don’t need to complete a travel declaration form.

Such consideration does not apply to those who have received other, even more effective, vaccines. (China claims its vaccine is more than 70% effective, although Brazilian scientists say it is only 51% effective, depending on the definition of efficacy.)

China may be the most blatant example but, as IATA reports, the “fragmented and diverse set of COVID-19 testing requirements for entry and exit, as well as the range of different types of tests required by governments, have created a challenging and complex environment for immigration authorities, passengers and airlines to navigate.”

In terms of developing a vaccine passport, “The technical issues are trivial. They’ve been solved by QR Codes and digital certificates,” Joyce said.

Several working groups are tackling the issue, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is perhaps the furthest along. Its free Travel Pass is being piloted by 14 airlines (all outside the U.S.), to ultimately help reduce the need for quarantines countries currently impose on incoming travelers.

The IATA Travel Pass is expected to be available in iOS and Android stores by the end of March.

The IATA digital pass contains verified proof of COVID-19 testing or vaccination and is considered more secure and more efficient than paper documents. IATA is developing a paper version of the Travel Pass, too, recognizing that not everyone has a smartphone.

The IATA Travel Pass app includes a global registry of health requirements for entry in various nations, a list of approved testing and vaccination centers at departure locations worldwide, a feature to locate authorized labs and test centers and a digital passport module.

That module is the key piece. It lets people receive test and vaccination certificates, verify they are sufficient for their itinerary and share those certificates with airlines and other authorities.

Importantly, the IATA Travel Pass does not store the data. Instead, it provides the links to tests or vaccination data that are shared with airlines or other entities only upon the expressed permission of the user.

With the technological questions solved, the looming questions are around coordination and who pays to roll out vaccine passports. For example, the IATA Travel Passport is free to download, but, Joyce said, “The health insurer or care provider will need a team of people to integrate (vaccination and testing data) into the big data pipeline. Who will be responsible?”

What is certain, he continued, is that “we need a common source of truth and validation of (the health) authority.”

That can be provided in the form of distributed ledger technology, such as Blockchain and Iota Tangle. Blockchain works by storing data in blocks that are chained together chronologically. New data is stored in new blocks, creating an irreversible, unalterable, time-stamped timeline. Tangle has a somewhat similar approach, but uses a directed graph to hold and associate transactions.

What these methods have in common is more important than their differences.

“An open-source distributed ledger approach provides an immutable record that can help bring together disparate ideas from different countries and provide a way to verify information without depending on a third party,” Drew Ehlers, global futurist and global GM of SmartPack at Zebra Technologies, told BioSpace.

That way, local privacy laws can be honored.

 “You can write the rules and logic atop the distributed ledger technology so that concert organizers get yes/no data about vaccination, but medical personnel get detailed information,” Ehlers said.

Because the information in distributed ledgers is hashed (deeply encrypted), the data can’t be spoofed or altered.

“The data is decentralized, immutable, secure, and transparent. It is read-only, and can’t be altered or deleted in any way,” Ehlers emphasized. “For it to be altered, the alteration has to go through 51% of the (millions of) nodes that make up the ledger. That’s impossible today. The furthest any hacker has made it on a blockchain hack is two nodes.”

Importantly, the ability to use a vaccine passport doesn’t depend on whether one is available when a person is vaccinated. In the U.S., “All the paperwork you filled out to get vaccinated is on a database at the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC),” Ehlers said.

To be used in a vaccine passport, users just need a personal identifier and a link to their data. Putting it into a distributed ledger adds a layer of security.

A vaccine passport can be distributed digitally to your smartphone or physically (like a driver’s license) and based upon a scannable QR code or barcode encoded with the user’s vaccination data. “That way, you’re using mobile technology that already are in the workflow.”

When vaccine passports are coming soon. How soon “depends on the speed of partnerships, and their ability to leverage a framework that’s frictionless, scalable, and open source,” Ehlers said.

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