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For the low price of $19.95, you can get your very own “COVID Passport”—a card, much like a REAL ID driver’s license, with a QR code that reveals if you’ve been inoculated against the contagious respiratory illness. Its creator, North Carolina-based tech company CastleBranch, says the digital vaccination card is the first to become available to the public.
Sounds useful, right? But not everyone’s thrilled about the prospect of that kind of documentation.
“I think we might run into problems because there are inequalities to access to this vaccine,” Dr. Ida Bergstrom, a Washington, D.C.-based travel precaution doctor. “There’s probably going to be some divisiveness on who has these passports and who doesn’t.”
As more of the world opens up to tourism and travel, the idea of requiring proof of vaccination to travel has become a hot topic of debate. The World Health Organization, for example, doesn’t support the use of what it calls “immunity passports,” and privacy experts have their concerns too. But that hasn’t stopped businesses and airlines from preparing to release them.
“If we can help people prove their COVID-19 vaccination status and help them return to everyday life—then that's a summit worth climbing,” Brett Martin, CastleBranch CEO, told VICE News. “While CastleBranch will accept government-issued forms to validate vaccination status and ID, we believe that governments should not be in control of a person’s data. Neither should advertisers or corporations.”
CastleBranch is just one of many companies attempting to distribute COVID “passports.” Earlier this month, the company launched its physical identification card that travelers can carry as proof of COVID vaccination. When scanned, the card’s QR code would display the holder’s personal identification information and vaccine history.
Some major travel companies have already hopped on board having digital passport cards. Chicago-based United Airlines announced Monday that it plans to release an update to its travel app that allows COVID passport compatibility. United is the first major airline to move toward accepting such a document and has said it’s willing to accept COVID passports from different companies.
“If we can help people prove their COVID-19 vaccination status and help them return to everyday life—then that's a summit worth climbing.”
After meeting this week in Madrid to discuss travel precautions, the Global Tourism Crisis Committee also announced that it supports requiring documentation for travel.
“The rollout of vaccines is a step in the right direction, but the restart of tourism cannot wait,” said Zurab Pololikashvili, the secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, which organized the meeting. “Vaccines must be part of a wider, coordinated approach that includes certificates and passes for safe cross-border travel.”
While the idea of opening tourism again will help boost suffering global economies, the World Health Organization, which advises public health policy for the entire globe, doesn’t think requiring proof of vaccination before traveling is a great idea, although they’re debating the prospect in ongoing hearings.
“Given that the impact of vaccines in reducing transmission is yet unknown, and the current availability of vaccines is too limited, the committee recommended that countries do not require proof of vaccination from incoming travelers,” the WHO said in a statement to VICE News.
The only similar regulation currently in place is a yellow fever vaccination card, which proves immunity to the deadly flu-like illness spread by mosquitoes if someone is traveling from endemic areas.
But the WHO said that a similar universal rollout for a COVID vaccine would require heaps of protocol and international discussion—both of which haven’t yet happened on a large scale.
Digital-liberty experts are also imploring extreme caution when gathering sensitive health data from a massive portion of the population.
“Sophisticated foreign nations and organized criminal syndicates steal data from all manners of government and corporate data systems,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz told VICE News, although the group ultimately supports the use of COVID passports, as long as data protection is a priority.
“Victims of data breach suffer identity theft, stalking, and more. That’s why we need new protections of our COVID-related data. And it is another reason we should not be creating new digital systems of vaccination passports,” he continued.
Schwartz also said that precautions like a decentralized blockchain verification system, an idea being tossed around by companies, may help increase the authenticity of passports, but hurt the privacy of data itself.
So far, the only country opening its borders to tourists on the basis of vaccination record is the Republic of Seychelles. The East African island with a population of approximately 90,000 people announced in a press release this week that it will immediately welcome anyone who has been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some companies have also adopted similar policies: British cruise fleet Saga Cruises announced late last week that passengers who have been vaccinated are welcome on their ships as long as they hold the vaccination card issued by healthcare providers, according to CNN.
The announcement caused such an uproar with both positive and negative responses, the company’s Twitter account was made private to corral them.
Still, big tech is looking to get ahead of the curve. IBM and Salesforce have teamed up to create a “Digital Health Pass” that would display an individual's vaccination history. CLEAR, a checkpoint bypass service already available at most airports, is also launching a vaccine records section of their travel biometric app that currently displays COVID test results. These updates are expected to come in the near future.
Arguably the most common app in existence at the moment is the International Air Transport Association’s CommonPass. Right now, the pass only displays travel restrictions and COVID-19 test results, but it’s adding vaccination records soon.