COVID-19 response team says potential 'vaccine passports' must be secure, free, open-sourced

COVID-19 vaccine
Posted at 11:04 AM, Mar 15, 2021

As the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. continues to increase, the country is inching closer and closer to a return to normalcy, particularly when it comes to travel.

But as travel restrictions are lifted, questions abound. Should vaccination be required to travel? If so, how can a person prove that they’ve been vaccinated? Who should be in charge of handling this data?

In recent weeks, airlines and countries around the world have announced plans to create so-called “vaccine passports” — a card or mobile phone app that would offer proof as to a person’s vaccination or negative COVID-19 test.

Such passports aren’t out of the ordinary. The New York Times notes that for decades, some countries have required a “yellow card,” or proof of vaccination against yellow fever, for travel.

According to NBC News, Iceland, Poland, Portugal and Cyprus have announced plans to offer citizens certificates proving vaccination upon distributing shots. In addition, a commission in the European Union is set to recommend the use of a “digital green pass” that would facilitate travel throughout the continent.

A few companies have already developed their own vaccine passports. The Commons Project, a nonprofit, debuted the CommonPass in October — a mobile app that tracks a person’s COVID-19 test and vaccination history and would deliver results in the form of a scannable QR code. CommonPass is now available for use with participating airlines, like Qantas.

The Washington Post adds that IBM is also developing its own system, “Digital Health Pass,” which has a focus on business travel.

The U.S. has been handing out vaccination reminder cards with every administered dose. However, NBC News reports that those cards likely won’t be up to snuff in serving as a vaccine passport, as they are too easy to forge.

As of now, the CDC and other federal agencies have not announced any plans regarding vaccine passports requirements or policies — as of now, the CDC still advises against all unnecessary travel, and advisory that isn’t likely to change for several months.

At a COVID-19 response team briefing on Monday, Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the COVID-19 response coordinator, said that he did not think that should vaccine passports become a reality in the U.S., that the federal government should not be behind the effort.

"Americans are asking, ‘How will I be able to demonstrate reliably that I've been vaccinated?’ And we have a couple of core beliefs about that," Slavitt said. "One is that it's not the role of the government to hold that data and to do that."

He later clarified that should vaccine passports become reality, that the Biden administration believes there is a “right way” to go about it. He added that such passports would need to be private, secure, free to use and open-sourced — or built on software that is publicly accessible, so data doesn’t fall into the hands of one person, company or country.

He also clarified that potential passports would need to be accessible digitally and physically and be available in multiple languages.

“Those are the right kind of principles for someone to be able to demonstrate that they’ve had a vaccine. We know that there are efforts underway led by non-profit collaboratives and the private sector, all working on exactly that type of thing.”