One of the biggest challenges of coming out of a pandemic is knowing when it's safe to resume a sense of normal. Now that vaccines are becoming more widely available, there's a measure of hope that such a reality may come sooner rather than later.
However, you don't want to let down your guard and give the virus a chance to regain ground, as new variants are popping up in some areas. That means continuing to keep some restrictions in place until everyone is vaccinated--or at least enough of the population to provide herd immunity (experts suggest this is around 70 to 85 percent).
After a year of shutdowns and varying degrees of quarantine, however, many people are eager for another option.
One solution that is gaining traction is a "vaccine passport," which could allow people to prove they've been vaccinated against Covid-19, allowing them to return to certain activities, such as flying internationally, attending sporting events, or sending their kids back to school.
We already have the vaccination record cards issued by the CDC. The problem is, they aren't hard to fake, making them an unreliable form of proof. You can even buy one online for $20. Fortunately, technology has gotten really good at solving complex problems, and this is no exception.
What is a vaccine passport?
The basic idea of a vaccine passport is that you would have an app on your smartphone that you would use to verify your identity, and then it would check with your state or local public health agency to confirm that you received a Covid-19 vaccine. The app would then display some form of proof, like a QR code, that could be scanned by a government or businesses, like an airline.
There are already efforts moving forward to create a sort of digital "green card" that would allow vaccinated individuals to not only travel without being subject to quarantine but also engage in all sorts of other activities.
Those efforts include a coalition of tech and health care companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, and the Mayo Clinic. Meanwhile, IBM is working on a "digital health pass," using the blockchain to authenticate whether a person has been vaccinated or tested negative. And Clear, which already works with airlines on trusted-traveler programs, is developing an app that it is currently testing on flights to Hawaii.
No Universal Standard
There are problems, however. The very fact that technology streamlines the process of building apps, and databases, and systems, also means that you end up with decentralized solutions to a very universal problem.
Different countries are taking their own approach to developing vaccine passports, and it doesn't look like there will ever be a common standard among them. Israel released an app in February that allows its citizens to show their vaccination proof. Individuals who have a so-called "green pass" are allowed into gyms, hotels, and other indoor spaces.
Countries like Cyprus and Portugal have recently announced plans for some form of proof of vaccination, while the European Union is planning to roll out a "digital green pass" that would combine test results, recovery from illness, and vaccination status to allow people to freely travel within and between member states. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she intends to introduce legislation to create the certificate to "facilitate Europeans' lives."
As a result of the different approaches, there is also the question of whether your vaccine passport will actually be accepted wherever you plan to visit. In some cases, countries will recognize proof of vaccination only if you've received one of the approved vaccines for that country.
China, for example, has said that visitors should receive one of the vaccines manufactured in that country. That means that if you received the Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines--the three used in the U.S. as of now--you're out of luck.
However, E.U. countries disagree over the proposal there, with some objecting that it could cause discrimination against those who either don't have access to the vaccine or choose not to be vaccinated, often on religious grounds.
In the United States, the White House has said it doesn't think the government should be issuing vaccination passports at all. In a briefing on Monday, the administration's Covid-19 Task Force coordinator, Andy Slavitt, said that it's "not the role of the government to hold that data and to do that."
If access to society requires proof of vaccination, we have a long way to go before we solve the problem of actually getting everyone vaccinated. In the meantime, should people who haven't been vaccinated have to stay home while everyone else gets back to normal?
It's one thing to restrict people from getting on an international flight, but if vaccine passports are required for other activities--like going to a baseball game, or to a restaurant--the vaccine inequality gap becomes an even bigger problem.
The Technology Gap
Then, there's the problem of access to tech, something that the pandemic has exacerbated. If the key to participating in normal activities like going to a restaurant is tied to an app, you probably need a smartphone. Except, not everyone has a smartphone.
According to a 2019 study by Pew Research, 81 percent of adults in the U.S. have a smartphone. Globally, the number is closer to 45 percent, meaning that more than half the world lacks the technology necessary to get on an international flight or go to a baseball game. Requiring digital "green cards" could widen the tech gap even more than it already is.
Privacy and Fraud Concerns
Finally, any time you combine technology with highly personal data like health information, people get nervous. The more personal the information, the higher the value as a target for hackers or criminals.
As former CDC director Thomas Friedman pointed out, it could even become a disincentive to getting vaccinated if people think the government is keeping a list of people who have received a shot. It's important to make sure that any vaccine passport is private and secure so that people aren't "tempted to not get vaccinated because they don't want this thing," Friedman said.
Privacy concerns might be a good argument against the government's issuing passports, but on the other side of the issue is trust. When Apple and Google announced that they were cooperating on a standard for Covid-19 exposure notification, it was public health agencies that were authorized to build apps using the APIs. That's because people are more likely to trust a public health organization than a private company, especially when it comes to health data.
It's also worth asking whether we really want to store even more personal information on a device that can be lost or stolen relatively easily. If these passports gain widespread acceptance, more of our normal activities will require them. That makes it more of a problem if you lose your device, or if someone else steals it.
A vaccination passport is linked to your personal identity, and your individual vaccination record within a database. Since a digital signature is linked to a specific device, you can't simply transfer that data to a new device if you have to replace your phone.
Once you've authenticated it, can you re-authenticate if you lose your device? That's an important consideration if it becomes a literal passport into society.
It also means that if a vaccine "green card" is necessary to engage in certain parts of society, you can be sure that there will be those who attempt to cheat the system. Tech companies are certainly working hard to prevent that, but with the number of high-profile hacks and data breaches in the past few months, it's at least worth considering that a vaccination passport would be a target.
Technology may be good at solving problems, but in almost every case, people are just as good at creating new ones. The entire point of a vaccination passport is that it can be trusted. If it turns out that it can be cheated through fraud, it would defeat the entire purpose.