Vaccine Passports Will Outlast the Pandemic

The flawed documents seem destined to be part of life long after the reason for their existence is gone.


With support from politicians, businesses, and the public, vaccine passports (formalized proof of health status) appear to be inevitable, at least for travel and for attending large events. But as competing offerings try to accommodate rival priorities and expectations, no single standard is near wide acceptance. In short, vaccine passports appear to be destined to become part of everyday life, but probably only in limited application and after the COVID-19 pandemic that spurred their development is long gone.

"A new Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum finds that, on average, about three in four adults across 28 countries agree that COVID-19 vaccine passports should be required of travelers to enter their country and that they would be effective in making travel and large events safe," the polling firm announced at the end of April.

Gallup also found that "U.S. adults favor mandated vaccination certification for travel by airplane (57%) and to attend events with large crowds, such as concerts or sporting events (55%)."

After that, though, polling finds a steep drop in support for requiring proof of health before people are allowed to go about their lives. Specifically, majorities of Americans in Gallup's survey oppose requiring proof of vaccination for people headed to the workplace, hotel stays, or restaurants.

Proof of vaccination for work seems to be a non-starter, in particular. While "no jab, no job" may trend as a search term, few businesses are interested in antagonizing employees with a vaccination requirement. "Less than 1% of survey respondents have actually decided to implement a mandate, and only 20% say they are even considering it," Mercer found in a February survey of employers. Encouraging and incentivizing employees to get their shots has much more support than requiring them to prove they are vaccinated for COVID-19.

And if you're not going to require vaccination of employees, imposing such a condition on customers who can take their business elsewhere seems even less likely. 

But international travel, concerts, and sporting events may well be enough to make vaccine passports a regular feature for many people in the years to come. All involve moving through checkpoints that are frequently under government control or otherwise subject to relatively easy regulation.

Iceland, for example, announced in March that "all those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed to travel to Iceland without being subject to border measures, such as testing and quarantine" and also accepts proof of negative tests and of prior infection. Because there is not yet a single internationally accepted standard, Iceland's Directorate of Health specifies the information that certificates must contain, lists acceptable languages, permitted vaccines, and warns that "Border control will evaluate whether a certificate is valid."

Showing up at Customs checkpoints in hope that your vaccination passport will be accepted is bound to pose headaches for travelers and the airlines transporting them. To address that concern, the International Air Transport Association developed the Travel Pass, one of the competing standards for proof of health status. The app- and paper-based Travel Pass, which is being tested by 30 airlines, lets travelers upload proof of health, testing, prior infection, or other government requirements. Like many proposals, it promises to let users control data and present only the minimum information required.

IATA's initiative, like Iceland's requirements, illustrates certain challenges faced by vaccine passport advocates. IATA offers (and Iceland accepts) paper documents as proof of vaccination, testing, or prior infection. But digital documents are "considered superior to a paper-only vaccination certificate, which can be fraudulently obtained, easily lost and damaged, or simply difficult to read due to illegible handwriting," as the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out in its first crack at guidance for such documentation. And WHO should know, since there's a thriving international black market in forged versions of the organization's "yellow card" certificates for travelers who need to demonstrate vaccination for yellow fever and other ailments.

Requiring digital certificates of everybody is impossible, though, unless you're going to exclude the great many people who don't have smart phones. That leaves authorities in the position of setting tighter standards for vaccine passports that put them out of reach of much of the population, or else loosening standards and accepting the reality that some documents will be bogus.

Not that digital documents are without their own flaws. It took only 11 minutes for Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project to forge New York's Excelsior Pass, which was introduced as a ticket "to gain entry to major stadiums and arenas, wedding receptions, or catered and other events." The Excelsior Pass is based on IBM's Digital Health Pass technology, which means that its vulnerabilities might be shared by other implementations.

Israel's Green Pass is reportedly similarly easy to counterfeit. It runs off a central database, has poorly implemented encryption, and constitutes a "security disaster" according to Haaretz

To be honest, even the most secure vaccine passport can only be as reliable as the information it has been given. If somebody compromises the sources of information about vaccinations or identity, the passport will blithely testify that it's all true. Ultimately, no matter how many standards are established and how many requirements legislated, authorities have to place some trust in the people presenting the documents—and accept a degree of flaws, errors, and deliberate evasion.

Such considerations are part of why, so far, there's been more talk of adopting vaccine passports than actual establishment of standards. The Biden administration has deliberately sworn off any interest in linking itself to a requirement that could turn into yet another battle. The European Union is creeping towards such a requirement, though it's coy about what it will look like or how it will be administered. Only Britain seems ready to take the plunge and use its existing National Health Service app as proof of vaccination (though the BBC emphasizes that it's not clear if anybody outside the country will accept it).

But the EU certificate is supposed to be unveiled this month, and New York's and Israel's passports remain in place despite their flaws. IATA's Travel Pass continues its trials, and other initiatives are going through their paces even as people get vaccinated or gain immunity from prior infection and COVID-19 diminishes as a threat. Ultimately, a public demanding assurances about the health of foreign travelers and about the safety of crowded events will get such assurances, whether or not they're meaningful. 

Given current trends, COVID-19 may have largely faded by the time vaccine passports are widely accepted, but the documents themselves will undoubtedly remain. It will be interesting to see just what uses authorities find for them after the reason for their existence is forgotten.