Does Europe need COVID-19 vaccination passports to restore pre-pandemic circulation?

With the first vaccinations against the coronavirus in Europe, specifically in England this week, for the first time in almost a year, the world begins to hope that the curtain begins to fall on the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this will not mitigate the impact of the new virus on our lives overnight; we will first have to wait months for the approved vaccines to reach most of the people who want them. The virus will fade over time, but not immediately.

With the arrival of an approved vaccine and several other strong candidates, the conversation has turned to how vaccination will be applied to our daily lives as the era of the coronavirus draws to a close and we begin to rebuild a sense of normalcy.

In many countries in Europe and the world, restrictions related to the pandemic have meant that the ability to move freely has been severely hampered. Passengers crossing international borders, for example, have faced long periods of mandatory quarantine, either upon arrival at their destination or upon return, or both.

The unprecedented mass vaccination programs are expected to make these restrictions moot, but in the meantime, the choice to vaccinate or not offers a ticket to freedom or the prolongation of the agony of confinement.

The mixed messages from the WHO about the vaccination passport

The debate over so-called immunity or serological passports arose early in the pandemic to allow people presumed immune to COVID-19 to circulate freely in society. With the advent of a vaccine, the idea has evolved so that immunity means having been vaccinated.

However, the official message about the validity of these so-called “digital health passports” – or “vaccination passports” as they are becoming known – is currently a bit confusing. The World Health Organization (WHO) itself appears to disagree with its own recommendations.

At a WHO press briefing in Copenhagen on 4 December, Dr Catherine Smallwood, WHO Senior Emergency Officer for Europe, reaffirmed the agency’s current guidance on “immunity passports”.

“We do not recommend immunity passports nor do we recommend testing as a means of preventing transmission across borders,” he said. “What we do recommend is that countries look at transmission data both within their countries and outside their borders and adjust their travel guidelines to individuals accordingly.”

The WHO, paradoxically, signed an agreement with Estonia in October to collaborate in the production of a digital vaccination certificate – or a “smart yellow card” in a nod to the old yellow fever vaccine paper certificates. The idea behind this agreement is to strengthen the case for vaccines, ensure equitable access to them, and ultimately end the restrictions of the pandemic through acquired active immunity.

“For the vaccination passport for travelers … we are looking very closely at the use of technology in this COVID-19 response and one of them is how you can work with member states to get something called a vaccination certificate. electronic, “Smallwood colleague Dr. Siddhartha Sankar Datta said at the same news conference.

Euronews reached out to the WHO for clarification on what appear to be positions contrary to semantics, but the organization had not responded at the time of publication.

However, vaccination passports are already becoming a mainstream idea. At the end of November, the Australian company Qantas, for example, became one of the first airlines to publicly announce that in the future it would only allow vaccinated passengers to board its flights.

To facilitate this, as well as to authenticate medical records, tech companies have already begun to look at digital health passports as the answer.

But are they really safe?

Ethical issues

While digital health passports are intended to solve many of the problems related to freedom of movement caused by the pandemic, there are those who raise legitimate concerns about the possibility of abuse of personal freedoms and privacy.

The University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom, published a report on December 3 on the impact that digital health passports would have on human rights enshrined in law.

“Digital health passports can contribute to the long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ana Beduschi, associate professor of law and one of the report’s authors, told Euronews. “However, they raise essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights.”

“To give an example, let’s imagine that public authorities required everyone to routinely display their health status – for example, COVID-19 test results or vaccination records – to access public spaces. and private, such as restaurants, churches or public transport.

“Depending on their health status, some people could move freely – that would be the case for those who have tested negative for COVID-19 or who have been vaccinated,” he said.

“On the contrary, others would not be allowed to travel and access specific places, including churches, sports venues and other gathering areas.

“It could be said that these measures could preserve the freedoms of those who do not have the disease or have been vaccinated,” he argued. “However, if some people cannot access or afford COVID-19 tests or vaccinations, they will not be able to demonstrate their health status, and therefore their freedoms will be de facto restricted.”

When it comes to sharing personal health records with third parties, the issue of data protection is also extremely important in the ethical debate.

“Even if people consent to their health data being collected, stored and processed for the purpose of using a digital health passport, providers would have to incorporate data protection into the design of these technologies by default,” Beduschi explained.

Progress being made

Perhaps to get ahead of these ethical red flags, an innovative digital project has already begun to provide a secure exchange of health records: the CommonPass app.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what we are doing, particularly compared to what a lot of people are talking about doing,” Thomas Crampton, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Commons Project, told Euronews.

Having already earned its stripes with other healthcare apps, the Swiss-based nonprofit created CommonPass as part of its outreach “to build digital tools for the public good.”

Although the application, which is free and compatible with all mobile phone platforms, is aimed at facilitating global travel during the pandemic, its rationale is to facilitate the secure exchange and protection of public health information.

“We don’t see a travel problem. We see a health data problem and it has a run in travel and aviation,” Crampton said. “The fundamental challenge is really around health data and how to allow people to control and manage their data in a way that maintains their privacy.”

CommonPass is being rolled out by five major airlines on selected routes, having been successfully tested on Cathay Pacific flights between Singapore and Hong Kong and by United Airlines between London and New York.

“What CommonPass does is allow you to transmit personal health information, specifically COVID evidence and vaccination status, from certified laboratories and vaccination sites in a way that preserves privacy,” Crampton added.

Once the relevant records and results have been entered and all entry requirements for the passenger’s destination have been met, the app creates a QR code that can be scanned by airlines and border officials.

It sounds attractive, but are people right to worry about privacy and data breaches?

“In the case of CommonPass, we don’t actually have that data. That data is at the data provider, which is the lab or the vaccination site, or on the person’s phone. There is no central database. No there is a separate entity for someone to hack. “

While the Commons Project is primarily concerned with the security of personal health data, travel-dependent industries that have been decimated by the pandemic, specifically aviation, are looking to apps like the CommonPass as a means of returning passengers. to the heavens.

With major airlines showing interest, will the app have the desired effect that many are hoping for and help to boost international travel again?

“The impact it will have is not up to us to say. We are not doing our role to advocate, one way or another, on whether it should be a three-, seven- or ten-day quarantine. What tests should be used, etc.,” Crampton said .

“What we are doing is providing a platform that allows people to gather, manage and share that information.”