How vaccine passports for global travel will work

  • Arriving passengers walk through Heathrow Airport in London, during England's third national lockdown for the coronavirus in January. The U.K.'s National Health Service app now lets fully vaccinated users prove their status when traveling.

    Arriving passengers walk through Heathrow Airport in London, during England's third national lockdown for the coronavirus in January. The U.K.'s National Health Service app now lets fully vaccinated users prove their status when traveling. Associated Press

  • The United Kingdom's test and trace app features a vaccine status for travelers.

    The United Kingdom's test and trace app features a vaccine status for travelers. Associated Press

 
By KELVIN CHAN
Associated Press
Updated 5/29/2021 6:22 PM

Boarding pass, suitcase, passport and ... digital vaccination certificate?

Keen to avoid losing another summer of holiday revenue to the coronavirus pandemic, the European Union, some Asian governments and the airline industry are scrambling to develop so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports to help kick-start international travel.

 

They're working on systems that would allow travelers to use mobile phone apps to prove they've been vaccinated, which could help them avoid quarantine requirements at their destinations.

But the multiple efforts underscore the lack of one central international system to electronically verify vaccination status. The projects also face technical challenges in working together, while questions about privacy and vaccine inequality linger.

Vaccination passports would add a digital layer to existing coronavirus health and contact tracing apps many countries and U.S. states have rolled out. Their use domestically to reopen local economies has been hotly debated. However, there's more momentum to use them for international travel, especially as countries like Iceland open their borders to vaccinated visitors and others like Saudi Arabia start allowing vaccinated citizens to travel abroad. The EU's decision last week to open its borders to fully vaccinated travelers adds even more urgency.

Here's a look at how vaccine passports work:

Official efforts

The first part of a vaccination passport is the user's official or approved electronic immunization record.

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The European Union, China and Japan are all working on their own digital vaccination certificates for cross-border travel. The U.K., meanwhile, updated its National Health Service app last week to let fully vaccinated users prove their status when traveling abroad.

Testing is under way for the EU's digital certificate, which will also confirm COVID-19 test results or recovery from the virus and is set to go live by the end of June, allowing residents to reunite with friends and relatives living across 30 European countries. The idea is that travelers will flash a QR code on their phones so it can be scanned at, say, an airport or train station, using an official verification app that checks with national databases, via an EU technical "gateway."

The World Health Organization doesn't recommend vaccination proof for international travel, citing unequal distribution of vaccines, even as it consults on developing a "Smart Vaccination Certificate."

Travel apps

Travelers need a smartphone app to carry any eventual vaccination certificates.

The EU's project includes open source technology European countries can use to build their own mobile wallets.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, has its smartphone IATA Travel Pass, which airlines including Qantas, Japan Airlines, Emirates, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have signed up to. A rival effort, CommonPass, has gained traction with carriers like Cathay Pacific, JetBlue, United and Lufthansa.

Travelers can already use the apps to verify that their COVID-19 test results are accepted at their destination. Travel Pass and CommonPass are so far only available to travelers on airlines that are using them. Both can be integrated into airline travel apps so users can verify their vaccine status when they check in online. Both are expected to work with the EU certificates. CommonPass says users will be able to import vaccine credentials by mid-June.

Amid a pandemic-dimmed travel outlook, vaccine passports will only become more widespread, said Paul Meyer, CEO of The Commons Project, the nonprofit behind CommonPass. "Our expectation is it will remain a requirement for international travel."

What travelers want

Business travelers like British public relations executive Richard Fogg welcome vaccine passports. Fogg's firm scaled back plans to attend a major telecom trade show in Barcelona next month, given quarantine rules for people returning to the U.K.

"Those 10 days of quarantine will have negative business implications -- there's no way around it," Fogg said.

Eymeric Segard, CEO of Geneva-based private jet broker Lunajets, noted travelers already hand over passports with personal data on arrival.

"Personally, I would be happy to tell anybody, yes, I am vaccinated or no I'm not vaccinated," he said, adding that vaccine passports would help avoid the "logistical nightmare" of multiple COVID-19 tests Europeans face when visiting other EU countries.

What about fakes?

Phony paper COVID-19 documents have been a problem during the pandemic but developers say digital versions have safeguards that make them hard to fake.

IATA says it doesn't verify test results or vaccination status but acts as the conduit for registered labs to securely send those details to travelers whose identity the app can match to the person who took the test or vaccination. The app scans a traveler's face using the phone camera and matches it to passport biometric details, and there are checks to prevent someone else using their identity.

Security and privacy

Vaccination passports are a polarizing topic, with online discussion highlighting unfounded fears that they'll be used to control people, restrict freedom and erode privacy. Developers say minimal personal data is kept on phones, and the only thing that gets transmitted are encryption keys allowing information to be exchanged securely.

"If done correctly, this doesn't bring an additional level of privacy risk because you're just putting in a credential status of yes or no," said Kevin Trilli, chief product officer at ID verification company Onfido.

There's also the question of how well various vaccine credential systems will work together and whether countries will recognize each others' certificates. The U.K. government has warned that not many countries currently accept proof of vaccination from travelers.

"You can't have an interoperable system on day zero," but over time the kinks will be worked out, which helps lay the groundwork for the next pandemic, Trilli said.

What about people who don't have smartphones? Or families that don't have a device for each member? IATA and EU officials say they're are working on solutions, including paper-based options.

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