A New Normal: The Reality of Vaccine Passports
Tuesday, December 28, 2021

In the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to quickly adapt to a new way of life. From face masks to social distancing, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way we live. To ensure the safety of travelers, some governments and organizations are now implementing digital vaccine passports.

What is a Vaccine Passport?

A vaccine passport is some sort of documentation that proves an individual has received the required vaccination to engage in an activity, whether it be traveling or attending an event. Although a novel concept for the current pandemic, the requirement for vaccination documentation to travel is nothing new. In fact, debates over vaccine passports date back to at least 1897, when a vaccine for the plague sparked debates similar to the one we see today. For decades, certain countries have required proof of vaccination against communicable diseases like yellow fever, rubella, and cholera in order to travel. However, the implementation of such a requirement for the COVID-19 vaccine poses new questions of feasibility.

Vaccine Passports Around the World

With the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaking havoc around the world, various organizations and governments are implementing vaccination requirements for travelers to mitigate the spread of the virus. A recent New York Times article details what this could look like. While there is no consensus as to what information would be included on such a document, the passport could include personal information, vaccination history, and documentation of negative testing.

The vaccine passport concept has already been put into place around the world. For instance, Denmark has implemented its own digital passport app to allow for people over 15 to use public transit, go to school, and travel, among other things. In fact, many European countries have implemented similar requirements this year to help curb the spread of the virus. Just this week, Japan followed suit, issuing two digital apps to help document vaccination status—one for citizens and one for travelers. So far, the United States has not adopted such a measure, but there are indications we may soon follow this trend.

The Biden Administration’s Stance

In early 2021, President Biden issued a slew of Executive Orders aimed at curbing the spread of the pandemic. One Executive Order advised the Secretary of State, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to “assess the feasibility” of producing digital versions of vaccination documents. To whatever extent the U.S. government assesses these options, the Biden administration has made it clear that it does not support the notion of a vaccine passport and will not mandate any such requirement for U.S. citizens.

The lack of White House support for such a mandate has not stopped major corporations from developing digital vaccine passports for use by private companies, however. From the travel industry to the sports industry, proof of vaccination status is quickly becoming an everyday part of life. In fact, IBM has already launched a Digital Health Pass that allows for individuals to offer proof of vaccination status or testing results at sporting events, airplanes, or workplaces. IBM is not the only company working on such initiatives, however, as some estimates show there were at least 17 such initiatives underway in March of this year.

Objections to Vaccine Passports

In addition to the outspoken movement of individuals against the COVID-19 vaccine, there are additional concerns about the feasibility of a digital vaccine passport. With approximately one billion people on Earth lacking a smartphone of any kind, digital vaccine passports pose a risk to heighten this inequity. This is in addition to concerns of privacy, as data breaches have long underscored the risks associated with mass-digitation of any information.

It remains unclear to what extent vaccine passports will become part of everyday life in the United States. However, digital initiatives to document vaccination status are gaining traction in hopes of protecting individuals as they return to normal life amidst a pandemic.


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