Covid-19 vaccine ‘passports’ raise ethical concerns and logistical hurdles


As vaccine launches gain momentum, governments around the world are looking for ways for people to prove they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, raising logistical and ethical concerns about whether others will be excluded from everyday life.

The UK government recently announced that it will consider whether Brits will need proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test to visit bars, return to the office, or attend theaters and sporting events.

In Israel, a vaccine passport was launched last week that allows those vaccinated to go to hotels and gyms. Saudi Arabia now issues an app-based health passport for the vaccinated, while the Icelandic government distributes vaccine passports to facilitate travel abroad. Last month, President Biden issued executive orders asking government agencies to evaluate the feasibility of creating digital Covid-19 vaccination certificates.


Photo:

abir sultan / EPA / Shutterstock

A concert in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, above, for which attendees had to show proof of vaccination with what are known in Israel as ‘green passports’, below.


Photo:

abir sultan / EPA / Shutterstock

Proponents of the plans say they will allow battered economies to reopen, even as vaccines are still being rolled out, allowing people to enjoy leisure activities and go to work safely knowing they are not harming others or in risk. It could also act as an incentive for people to get vaccinated.

But the concept is potentially fraught with pitfalls. It could discriminate against minority communities, who are less likely to accept vaccines, according to national surveys, or youth, who are less likely to be given priority to receive them. There are questions about the ethics of granting companies access to people’s medical records.

“What supports all this is, what are you going to use it for?” said Melinda Mills, director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Sciences at the University of Oxford. “Is it for international travel? Is it to get a job? Is it to buy milk?

Some health authorities are concerned that vaccine passports may give people a false sense of security. For example, it is not clear whether vaccines prevent people from becoming infected and spreading disease and whether inoculations will be rendered less effective by mutations in the virus. Scientists race for answers to these questions.

In the European Union, leaders agreed at a virtual summit on Thursday to present an electronic vaccine certificate within three months that can operate across the bloc. But divisions remain over what a certificate could be used for. Some, like Austria and Greece, want it to be a form of passport that allows those who have been vaccinated to travel.

A vaccination center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last month.


Photo:

Amr Nabil / Associated Press

Others, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, are more skeptical. French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday night that he does not want young people, who will not receive vaccines for now, to be discriminated against.

The World Health Organization has created a working group to analyze the best way to create a digital vaccination certificate.

Israel and the United Kingdom, two major countries with advanced vaccination programs, are at the forefront of the debate. The UK aims to have all adults vaccinated by the end of July. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a review of immunity certificates to be completed before mid-June.

Israel began on Saturday night to issue so-called “green passports” that allow vaccinated people to enter gyms, concerts and hotels. The passes will then be used in restaurants and bars, when they reopen in the coming weeks.

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Officials have described green passports as important tools in their efforts to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated. So far, 50% of Israel’s population has received at least one injection of a vaccine.

Green passports can be found on the website of the Ministry of Health or in a mobile application and carry a barcode and a personal identification number.

The project is not without controversy. While vaccination in Israel is not mandatory, parliament on Wednesday passed a law that would allow the county health ministry to identify unvaccinated people to local authorities. Other measures may require frequent testing for those who are not vaccinated.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he was considering proposing legislation that would allow employers to prevent unvaccinated employees from coming to work, although those decisions are not final.

Israel’s public health union warned that sharing people’s vaccination status raises privacy concerns. Other experts have raised questions about whether people’s personal information could be used to later target them with political advertising.

In the UK, where more than a third of the population have received at least one injection of the vaccine, the government is legally prohibited from forcing the British to get vaccinated. Initially, government ministers said they were against vaccine passports. But in recent weeks, the government has changed course.

Johnson said people are likely to need proof of vaccination to travel abroad, just as some countries require a yellow fever immunization certificate. But whether the government should require certificates to access leisure activities is unclear, he said.

A health worker in eastern Germany registered a vaccine earlier this month.


Photo:

jens schlueter / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

“We haven’t had things like this before. We never think of having something to show to go to a pub or to the theater, “he said this week. “There are deep and complex problems that we must explore.”

To avoid fears that it would turn vaccine refusers into second-class citizens, the government is exploring whether a certificate could also be awarded if a person tests negative for Covid-19.

Officials are exploring whether a vaccine or test certificate can be displayed in an app developed by the country’s National Health Service. That could take a long time to implement, said Elliot Jones, a researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute, a British research foundation. The UK government took more than six months to create a Covid-19 track and trace app.

Paris and Singapore airports, as well as airlines like United and JetBlue, are experimenting with apps that check travelers for Covid-19 before boarding. WSJ visits an airport in Rome to see how a digital health passport works. Photo credit: AOKpass

Meanwhile, the private sector can take matters into its own hands. British holiday operator Saga PLC said customers must provide proof that they have received two vaccinations before boarding their cruise ships. International business machines Corp.

has developed a digital health pass that allows people to share medical records with employers or other companies.

In Israel, some business leaders say they will require employees to be vaccinated. Shai Wininger, Co-Founder of New York-based Insurance Company Lemonade Inc.,

wrote on Facebook that he will only meet face to face with vaccinated people.

Large shopping centers Limited.

, which operates shopping malls across Israel, said this month that it will not allow unvaccinated workers, vendors and guests access to its administration offices starting in March.

Once the majority of a country’s population is vaccinated, the question is whether the social and economic costs of vaccine passports are worth the possible small reduction in transmission they could confer, Jones said.

If vaccines keep infection rates in check, he asked, “Is it really worth all this hassle?”

Write to Max Colchester at [email protected] and Felicia Schwartz at [email protected]

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