With the first European coronavirus vaccines taking place in England this week, for the first time in nearly a year, the world is beginning to feel hopeful that the curtain is finally beginning to fall on the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a vaccine will not mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our lives overnight; We will first have to wait months for the approved vaccines to reach the majority of the people who want them. Control of the virus will eventually loosen, but it will not leave the world yet.
With the arrival of an approved vaccine and several other credible candidate vaccines, there has now been talk of how we will navigate our daily lives as the era of the coronavirus draws to a close and begins to rebuild a sense of normalcy.
In many countries in Europe and around 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 enforced quarantine, either upon reaching their destination or upon returning, or both.
Unprecedented mass vaccination programs are expected to eventually make these restrictions moot, but in the meantime, the choice to vaccinate or not offers a ticket to freedom or prolong the agony of lockdown.
“Immunity passports” were a concept that emerged early in the pandemic to allow people who were supposed to be immune to COVID-19 to circulate freely in society. With the advent of a vaccine, the idea has evolved further to encompass immunity through proof of vaccination.
However, the official message about the validity of these so-called “digital health passports”, or “vaccine passports” as they are known, is a bit confusing today. The World Health Organization (WHO) itself appears to disagree with its own recommendations.
At a WHO press conference in Copenhagen on December 4, Dr Catherine Smallwood, WHO’s Senior Emergency Officer in Europe, reaffirmed the agency’s current guidance on “immunity passports”.
“We do not recommend immunity passports nor do we recommend testing as a means to prevent transmission across borders,” he said. “What we do recommend is that countries look at the data on transmission both within their countries and beyond their borders and adjust their travel guide to people accordingly.”
The WHO, paradoxically, signed an agreement with Estonia in October to collaborate on the development of a digital vaccination certificate, or a “smart yellow card” in a nod to the old paper certificates of the yellow fever vaccine. The idea behind this is to make the case for vaccines, ensure equitable access to them, and ultimately end pandemic restrictions through active acquired 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 we can work with member states to achieve something called an electronic vaccination certificate, a vaccine certificate, “said Smallwood colleague Dr. Siddhartha Sankar Datta at the same news conference.
Euronews reached out to the WHO for clarification on what appear to be opposing positions on semantics, but the organization had not responded at the time of publication.
However, vaccine passports are already becoming a mainstream idea. In late November, Australian airline Qantas, for example, became one of the first airlines to publicly announce that they would only allow vaccinated passengers on board their flights in the future.
To facilitate this, in addition to authenticating medical records, tech companies have already started looking for digital health passports as the answer. But how safe are they?
While digital health passports claim to solve many of the problems surrounding freedom of movement caused by the pandemic, there are those who raise legitimate concerns about the potential for abuse of personal freedoms and privacy.
The University of Exeter in the UK published a report on December 3 on the impact 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 authors of the report, told Euronews. “However, they raise essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights.”
“To give you an example, imagine that public authorities would require everyone to routinely display their health status, for example COVID-19 test results or vaccination records, to access public and private spaces, such as restaurants , churches or public transport.
“Depending on their health status, some people could move freely, that would be the case of 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 or access specific places, including churches, sports venues and other gathering areas.
“It could be said that such measures could preserve the freedoms of those who do not have the disease or have been vaccinated,” he argued. “However, if some people are unable to access or pay for COVID-19 tests or vaccinations, they will not be able to prove their health status, and therefore their freedoms will be de facto restricted.”
When it comes to sharing personal medical records with third parties, the issue of data protection is also of great importance to the ethical debate.
“Even if individuals consent to their health data being collected, stored and processed for the purpose of using a digital health passport, providers would still have to incorporate data protection into the design of these technologies by default “Beduschi explained.
Progress is being made
Perhaps in anticipation of such ethical red flags, an innovative digital project is already outside the starting blocks to provide a secure exchange of medical records: the CommonPass app.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what we are doing, particularly versus what a lot of people are talking about doing,” Thomas Crompton, Project Commons director of marketing and communications, 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 raison d’être 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,” Crompton said. “The fundamental challenge is really around health data and how people are allowed to control and manage their data in a way that maintains their privacy.”
CommonPass is in the process of being rolled out by five major airlines on select routes that have 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 testing and vaccination status, from certified labs and vaccination sites in a way that preserves privacy,” Crompton added.
Once the relevant results and records have been entered and all the entry requirements for the passenger’s destination are met, the app creates a QR code that airlines and border officials can scan.
It sounds attractive, but do people have a right to be concerned 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 laboratory or vaccination site, or on the person’s phone. There is no central database. There is no a separate entity for someone to hack. “
While Project Commons 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 CommonPass as a means of returning passengers to the heavens.
With the major airlines showing interest, will the app have the desired effect that many are hoping for and help boost international travel again?
“It is not up to us to say what impact it will have. We do not do our part to defend, one way or another, if it should be a three-day, seven-day, ten-day quarantine. What tests should be used, etc.” Crompton said. “What we are doing is providing a platform that allows people to collect, manage and share that information.”