Once people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, they’re safer to dine out, fly on airplanes, attend concerts and movies, work out at the gym, go to the office, cross borders and otherwise move about — as long as they wear masks around other people indoors, avoid large groups and keep their distance.
How can they demonstrate that they have this protection? By showing a “vaccine passport,” perhaps in the form of a smartphone app.
Israel, the U.K., the European Union and other governments are creating such digital documents, as are private organizations. President Joe Biden is assessing whether the U.S. should have them.
Yet vaccine passports have met resistance. Critics, including the World Health Organization, worry that they might exacerbate inequality, undermine privacy or simply not work very well. These concerns ought to be addressed, but they shouldn’t veto a useful tool for speeding a post-coronavirus return to normal life.
First, inequality. “Vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis,” Michael Ryan, head of health emergencies at the WHO, said earlier this month. Vaccine passports, he said, might allow this inequity to be “further branded into the system.”
There’s no question that the vaccine rollout should be managed with equity in mind, and care should be taken to ensure that passports don’t make this any harder. Proof of vaccination can be provided in different ways, so that people who don’t have smartphones, for instance, aren’t excluded.
But the main thing is to deliver vaccines as quickly and equitably as possible — both within countries and globally. Denying freedom of movement to people who, once vaccinated, pose little danger to themselves or others merely introduces another kind of injustice. On what basis do you deny people activities and contact with others if little risk is involved?
Privacy is another concern. People resist revealing their personal medical details to strangers. But a vaccine passport can say that a person is free of COVID-19 or protected against it without going into details about tests or shots, or any other health characteristics — just as credit cards can be used to buy things without revealing a person’s bank account or credit history. Governments should demand such standards of privacy and accuracy for vaccine passports.
For example, CommonPass, a digital vaccine passport being developed by the nonprofit Commons Project and the World Economic Forum, will access users’ vaccination records and lab results — to protect against forgery — but use them to validate their inoculation and infection status without revealing details. Passports should be able to provide a simple yes-or-no answer to the question “Does this person meet this facility’s COVID-19-related entry requirements?”
But would the passports actually work as intended? They certainly couldn’t guarantee that someone was virus-free or safe from infection, because tests and vaccines provide less-than-total protection. Someone infected with the coronavirus may test negative early on; someone who has been vaccinated retains a small risk of being infected. And medical science doesn’t yet know whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus, or how long vaccine protection will last.
Nevertheless, passports can signify that the bearers are guarded against severe disease and death, and are less likely than the unvaccinated to carry the virus and infect other people. In other words, what risks they take and pose to others are tolerably low — if they wear masks and take other precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
Keep in mind, vaccine passports are also meant to be temporary. As populations are more broadly inoculated and COVID-19 fades, the world will be able to again operate without them. In the meantime, they can encourage widespread vaccination, and enable airlines, restaurants, offices and other businesses to come back to life quickly and safely.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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