Planning to celebrate your vaccination with a night out at the movies, or dinner, or a day at the ballpark? You might need to bring your passport — vaccine passport, that is.
It has already happened in New York City, at Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center. Starting in late February, hundreds of fans attending Brooklyn Nets or New York Rangers games have displayed a smartphone app or a printed QR code that verified either that they’d been vaccinated or had tested negative for the coronavirus within the previous 72 hours.
Delighted sports fans used the Digital Health Pass system from IBM, one of a number of vaccine verification systems under development by technology companies and major global organizations. Some countries, including Israel and China, have begun to deploy them broadly, and the European Union is expected to release details of its digital green pass later in March.
While such passports could help businesses reopen quickly and safely and jump-start tourism and travel worldwide, a proliferation of them could itself become a problem.
“There are at last count, that I’m aware of, 17 or 18 different ones out there,” said Brian Anderson, chief digital health physician at MITRE, a federally funded research company in Bedford
If the various passport systems aren’t compatible, Anderson added, “that would be an incredibly painful experience for consumers.” For instance, a sports fan might need one passport app to go to a baseball game, another to eat at a restaurant.
Vaccine passports are familiar to world travelers who carry yellow fever immunization cards. In the United States, people who’ve gotten a COVID vaccination get a similar paper card, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they’re easy to forge and, unlike yellow fever cards, aren’t officially recognized by other countries.
In January, the Biden administration ordered federal agencies to evaluate the idea of creating digital certificates for all vaccinated US citizens, similar to IBM’s Digital Health Pass. This more robust approach would feature a digital QR code linked to the person’s identity. At the thousands of locations where vaccines are provided, health care workers would enter the information into a computer to generate the code. Patients would download an app that would let them scan the codes with their smartphone cameras and store the codes on the phones. Or they could receive a printed copy of the QR code.
MITRE is part of a consortium working to solve the compatibility challenge. Another member of the group, Jenny Wanger, director of programs at Linux Foundation Public Health, said they’re aiming for a vaccine passport that works as seamlessly as a credit card.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a Visa or a Mastercard,” Wanger said. “You can still swipe your card and people know what bank to get the money out of.” Vaccine passport apps must be equally compatible, Wanger said.
But getting it right will require diplomacy as well as technology, because the world’s nations must agree to accept each other’s vaccine certificates. Otherwise, countries will have to negotiate special deals with each other. For instance, Greece and Cyprus have agreed to accept Israel’s vaccine passport, but other countries have not. Only a global deal can resolve the matter, and the World Health Organization has set up a working group to grapple with it.
But should proof of vaccination be mandatory for global travel? The WHO says no, arguing that vaccinated people might still be able to spread the disease, despite being protected themselves. In addition, the agency is concerned that mandatory vaccine passports could prevent travel by millions of people from developing countries where it will take years to vaccinate everybody.
Meanwhile, civil libertarians fear that vaccine passports could jeopardize our privacy. If people are required to display them wherever they go, governments could use them to track people’s movements. They also argue the passports will create a two-tiered society in which unvaccinated people might not be able to travel, shop, or get a job.
“Vaccine passports are unproven, discriminatory, and they will put New Yorkers at risk,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Businesses must also decide whether to require proof of vaccination. Some customers or employees might find such a demand intrusive. Besides, many in the United States may never get vaccinated. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 15 percent of the respondents, US citizens, said they definitely won’t get the vaccine, while another 15 percent said they probably won’t. That’s 50 to 100 million people. It won’t be easy to turn away that many potential customers or workers..
Still, there’s a lot of corporate interest in demanding vaccine passports from employees. “Almost all of the companies that we work with are asking about it,” said Joan Harvey, president of care solutions at Evernorth, a business unit of the health care insurer Cigna.
Some companies might require all employees to show they’ve been vaccinated, Harvey said. Others are considering a hybrid approach, with certificates required only for people who work in close proximity to others.
But some may be reluctant to demand that customers show vaccine passports. For instance, the National Football League and Major League Baseball have each said that individual teams will decide whether to require them.
In Massachusetts, sports arenas have been cleared to permit in-person attendance starting March 23, unless a spike in COVID infections forces a change of plans. The Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots said there are currently no plans to require COVID passports at Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium. Nor are there such plans at TD Garden, where the Boston Bruins and Celtics play.
Trade shows and conventions coming to Boston will probably set their own rules, said Nate Little, spokesman for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.
“When an event comes to town and rents one of our venues they essentially own it for the duration of the show and implement their own health and safety protocols,” Little said. “I would anticipate that would be the same going forward.”
The airline industry has been the most forthright in calling for vaccine passports. Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, testified before Congress last week that air carriers are eager to adopt a vaccine verification system.
“We think that verifiable testing and vaccination data is critical to the return of travel,” Calio said. Several US airlines are already testing apps that would display a traveler’s vaccination status. They’re mainly focused on international flights, out of concern that some countries may require proof of vaccination.
But Airlines for America, like the WHO, said the use of such passports by air travelers should be strictly voluntary.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.