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What Is a ‘Vaccine Passport’ — and Will You Need One Next Time You Travel?

Millions of vaccines have been purchased with the hope that in time the world’s populations could become COVID-19 immune. The expectation is that with a vaccine, some aspects of life will return to normal — especially when it comes to travel. 

This is where a “vaccine passport” — or “e-vaccination certification of compliance for border crossing regulations” to enable seamless border-crossing and the harmonization of varying national laws — might become a required travel document.

There are important questions to be asked, however, around whether vaccinations prevent transmission, the difference between evidence of inoculation and evidence of immunity and the rights of those people who may be unable to have the vaccine for health or other reasons.

With this in mind, the World Health Organization (WHO) is looking closely into the use of technology in the COVID-19 response and how it can work with member states toward an e-vaccination certificate. Importantly, the framework will need to be harmonized, when it comes to standards and the use cases for the certificate, by a normative body, like the WHO, to ensure that it upholds ethical and equitable principles.

There are also separate initiatives among the private sector, such as the Vaccine Credentials Initiative, which are feeding into this work by offering authentication tools and solutions.

Here, Arnaud Bernaert, the head of Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum, explains why the WHO’s framework must be the global standard and what are the use cases for sharing data around diagnostics and vaccines.

Is the Idea of a Vaccine Passport New?

The concept of a passport to allow for cross border travel is something that we’ve been working on with the Common Trust Network for many months. The focus has been first on diagnostics: That’s where we worked with an organization called “The Commons Project” to develop the “Common Trust Framework.” This is a set of registries of trusted data sources, a registry of labs accredited to run tests and a registry of up-to-date border crossing regulations.

The set of registries can be used to generate certificates of compliance to prevailing border-crossing regulations as defined by governments. There are different tools to generate the certificates and the diversity of their authentication solutions, and the way they protect data privacy is quite remarkable.

We at the Forum have no preference when it comes to who is running the certification algorithm — we simply want to promote a unique set of registries to avoid unnecessary replication efforts. This is why WEF supports the Common Trust Framework.

For instance, the Common Pass is one authentication solution — but there are others, for example developed by Abbott, AOK, SICPA (Certus), IBM and others.

The WHO is creating a standard for requesting vaccinations, rather than building a set of rules that would be left to the interpretation of member states or private-sector operators — such as cruises or airlines.

How Does the System Work?

The Common Trust Network is combining the set of registries that are going to enroll all participating labs. Separately from that, it provides an up-to-date database of all prevailing border entry rules — which fluctuate and differ from country-to-country.

Combining these two datasets provides a QR code that border entry authorities can trust. It doesn’t reveal any personal health data — it tells you about compliance of results versus border entry requirements for a particular country. For example, if your border control rules say that you need to take a test of a certain nature within 72 hours prior to arrival, the tool will confirm whether the traveler has taken that corresponding test in a trusted laboratory and that the test was indeed performed less than three days prior to landing.

The purpose is to create a common good that many authentication providers can use and to provide anyone, in a very agnostic fashion, with access to those registries.

What Is the WHO’s Role?

There is currently an effort at the WHO to create standards that would process data on the types of vaccinations, how these are channeled into health and healthcare systems registries and the use cases — beyond the management of vaccination campaigns — include border control but also possibly in the future access to stadia or large events. By establishing in a truly ethical fashion harmonized standards, we can avoid a scenario where you create two classes of citizens — those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

So rather than building a set of rules that would be left to the interpretation of member states or private-sector operators — such as cruises, airlines or conveners of gatherings — the World Economic Forum supports the WHO’s effort to create a standard for member states for requesting vaccinations and how it would permit the various kinds of use cases.

It is important that we rely on the normative body to create the vaccine credential requirements. The Forum is involved in the WHO’s taskforce to reflect on those standards and think about how they would be used. The WHO’s goal is to deploy standards and recommendations by mid-March 2021, and the hope is that they will be more harmonized between member states than they have been to date in the field of diagnostics.

Private Sector and Separate Initiatives

When registry frameworks are being developed for authentication tools providers, they should at a minimum feed as experiments into the standardization efforts being driven by WHO, knowing that the final guidance from the only normative body with an official UN mandate may in turn force those providers to revise their own frameworks. We certainly support this type of interaction, as public- and private-sector collaboration is key to overcoming the global challenge posed by COVID-19.

Ensuring Equitable Distribution of Vaccines

As the WHO has warned, vaccine nationalism —or a hoarding and “me-first” approach to vaccine deployment — risks leaving “the world’s poorest and most vulnerable at risk.”

COVAX is coordinated by the World Health Organization, in partnership with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the Center for Epidemics Preparedness Innovations and others. So far, 190 economies have signed up.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-Accelerator) is another partnership, with universal access and equity at its core. It has been successful in promoting global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. 

A version of this piece originally appeared on the World Economic Forum Agenda blog.

Gayle Markovitz

Editor at World Economic Forum

Gayle Markovitz is the editor at the World Economic Forum.

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