Biden administration working with industry to develop COVID-19 'passports' as vaccinations progress
Passports offer a glimpse of a future that many are longing for after months of COVID-19 restrictions.
Along with private technology and travel companies, the Biden administration is working to develop credentials – referred to as passports, health certificates or travel passes – showing proof of vaccination as individuals and businesses emerge from lockdown, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
Airline and business groups had been lobbying the White House to take the lead in setting standards for health passes. They believe that would avoid a hodgepodge of regional credentials that could cause confusion among travelers and prevent any single health certificate from being widely accepted.
According to the Washington Post, the administration's efforts are housed in offices of Health and Human Services, with the White House this month taking a "bigger role coordinating government agencies involved in the work, led by coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients."
“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” Zients said at a March 12 briefing.
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The passports offer a glimpse of a future after months of COVID-19 restrictions. Officials say getting vaccinated and having proper documentation will smooth the way to travel, entertainment and other social gatherings in a post-pandemic world.
But it also raises concerns about dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, creating ethical and logistical issues for decision-makers around the world.
“A chaotic and ineffective vaccine credential approach could hamper our pandemic response by undercutting health safety measures, slowing economic recovery, and undermining public trust and confidence,” reads one slide at a March 2 conference prepared by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
There are several private-sector initiatives creating passports.
The trade group for global airlines, the International Air Transport Association, is testing a version it calls Travel Pass.
IBM is developing another, called a Digital Health Pass. Currently, the digital pass allows New Yorkers to download proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. The app is similar to a mobile airline boarding pass and uses a secure QR code that can be stored in a smartphone or printed out. Officials said the technology doesn’t store or track private health data within the app.
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It is not clear, however, whether any of the passports under development will be accepted broadly around the world, and the result could be confusion among travelers and disappointment for the travel industry.
Airlines and others support so-called vaccine passports as a means of getting governments to lift pandemic restrictions that were designed to curb the virus but caused a collapse in the travel industry.
Vaccine passports will be most common on international flights. Some countries already require proof of vaccination for diseases such as yellow fever, and the United States now requires a negative test for COVID-19 to enter the country.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against travel even as the agency has relaxed other guidelines for people who have been vaccinated.
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The Vaccination Credential Initiative is a coalition trying to standardize tracking data of vaccination records in an attempt to speed up a return to normal.
“The busboy, the janitor, the waiter that works at a restaurant, wants to be surrounded by employees that are going back to work safely – and wants to have the patrons ideally be safe as well,” said Brian Anderson, a physician at Mitre, a company helping lead the initiative. “Creating an environment for those vulnerable populations to get back to work safely – and to know that the people coming back to their business are ‘safe,’ and vaccinated – would be a great scenario.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.