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What role for vaccine passports in coronavirus fight?

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 March 2021 14:17 GMT

Passengers wait to be tested after they arrive at Toronto's Pearson airport after mandatory coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing took effect for international arrivals in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada February 15, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

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Proponents say vaccine passports could help open up travel and other services, but critics raise concerns over privacy and discrimination

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 gathers pace, countries from Sweden to Israel are exploring how certificates and passports could help reopen economies by identifying those protected against the virus.

But a push for identity proofs and digital certificates risks excluding poorer and vulnerable groups from vaccine passports and the benefits that come with them, rights experts warn.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to business executives, researchers and advocates about what role vaccine passports should play in the global fight against the pandemic.

MELODY PATRY, ADVOCACY DIRECTOR, ACCESS NOW

"Any vaccine certificate needs to be carefully regulated, with a clearly defined and narrow purpose of checking if someone has received the vaccine. It should not be used to limit people from travel, livelihoods or societal participation.

Putting sensitive health data into the hands of authorities — like border control agents, police officers, employers or school administrators — creates serious privacy risks right away and threatens to evolve into more permanent health surveillance infrastructure over time.

Vaccine 'passports' also raise concerns about freedom of movement and assembly. Whether someone is entering a building or a country, misuse of these tools would restrict people's ability to access essential services, work, study, travel and participate in civic life."

ALEXANDRE DE JUNIAC, DIRECTOR GENERAL, INTERNATIONAL AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION

"Vaccines will play a role in re-establishing global connectivity. Testing and contact tracing are also needed. In the next month, IATA will launch the IATA Travel Pass which will help travellers manage verified digital health credentials —vaccine certificates and test results.

But there are fundamental pieces still missing to maximise its efficiency (namely) global standards for digital vaccination certifications and testing documentation.

To start, solutions must be secure - with passengers in control of their data - interoperable and integrated into travel processes. That's a high bar that IATA Travel Pass will meet. Billions of travellers cannot be efficiently processed any other way."

IMOGEN PARKER, HEAD OF POLICY, ADA LOVELACE INSTITUTE

"If governments have sufficient evidence, and identify clear use cases for vaccine passports, they need to acknowledge and clearly articulate the trade-offs between public health, economic benefit, liberties and social inequity those use cases will entail.

Ultimately, governments should engage with and listen to the public on what use cases are legitimate and what trade-offs the public is willing to make.

This is particularly important with groups at greater risk of discrimination as a result of their introduction, such as insecure workers, those unable or unwilling to be vaccinated, or those who face over-surveillance."

A customer pushes a shopping trolley past a board showing the way for COVID-19 tests near a Carrefour Hypermarket store in Nice, France, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

KEVIN TRILLI, CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER, ONFIDO

"Vaccine passports provide a simple, convenient tool that can be quickly implemented to help get travel and many societal events moving again.

Digitising vaccine passports makes them harder to forge and provides a much better user experience. They can be timed-out across multiple devices, either when a booster is required or immunity expires, and instead of carrying your paper-based vaccine certificates your phone can seamlessly inform gatekeepers that you have the correct vaccinations.

To prevent fraud, we need to be able to safely bind a person's digital identity with their immunisation certificate. This can be done by simply requesting a photo of a government ID and a selfie. We can ensure users need only share their health status and no other information while ensuring personal data is securely stored on the owner's device."

SILKIE CARLO, DIRECTOR, BIG BROTHER WATCH

"Vaccine passports lack any rationale, unless the (British) government is trying to create a draconian, two-tier surveillance state. In just a few weeks, everyone in the most vulnerable groups will have been offered a vaccination. This means deaths and hospitalisations will plummet, and we should be reunited with our freedoms.

But we won't be reunited with freedom if the government forces us to carry vaccine IDs – we'll become a dystopian checkpoint society that discriminates against those who can't have a vaccine for health reasons or pregnancy, that leaves behind those who have less access to healthcare, and that excludes those who delay or decide against a vaccine."

TOM FISHER, SENIOR RESEARCHER, PRIVACY INTERNATIONAL

"Vaccine passports will create exclusions and discriminations globally, with billions prevented from travelling internationally, potentially for years to come. Within countries we will see similar concerns, as access to vaccinations and identity documents are often linked to issues like race, class and gender.

We're already seeing how vaccination passports will be used to push forward broader digital ID systems. These systems risk exclusion and exploitation, particularly if introduced without proper oversight and accountability during a pandemic.

We all want to see an end to the restrictions this pandemic has brought; but introducing vaccine passports risks putting us into a state of permanent pandemic."

Related stories:

COVID-19 vaccines: Who's jumping the line - and how to stop it

Back to work? Not without a check-in app, immunity passport

Can coronavirus vaccines reach developing countries?

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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