(AP) – Airlines and others in the travel industry are supporting so-called vaccine passports to boost travel depressed by the pandemic, and authorities in Europe could adopt the idea quickly enough for the peak summer vacation season.
Technology companies and travel-related trade groups are developing and testing various versions of vaccine passports, also called health certificates or travel passes.
However, it is unclear whether any of the passports in development will be accepted around the world, and the result could be confusion among travelers and disappointment for the travel industry.
Here are some key questions about health credentials.
WHAT IS A VACCINE PASSPORT?
It is documentation that shows that a traveler has been vaccinated against COVID-19 or recently tested negative for the virus that causes it.
The information is stored on a phone or other mobile device that the user shows to airline employees and border officials. The Biden administration and others also want a paper version available.
WHO IS DESIGNING THEM?
The global airline trade group, the International Air Transport Association, is testing a version it calls the Travel Pass. IBM is developing another, called the Digital Health Pass. There are several other private sector initiatives.
Some countries are getting involved and using passports beyond air travel. Israel is using a new “green passport” to ensure that only people who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 can attend public events such as concerts. Denmark hopes to launch a pass that will allow vaccinated people to travel with fewer restrictions.
WHY DO TRAVEL COMPANIES WANT THEM?
International air travel collapsed during the pandemic, as countries impose restrictions such as quarantines or outright bans to slow the spread of the virus. Airlines have vaccine passports to convince governments to remove some of those restrictions that discourage visitors.
“The importance of this to restart international aviation cannot be underestimated,” said Alexandre de Juniac, executive director of the airline trade group.
Hotel operators that rely on international visitors are also eager for the passes to be adopted.
The airline trade group tested its app on Wednesday on a Singapore Airlines flight to London. A passenger put a digital version of his passport, coronavirus test results and travel restrictions at his destination on a mobile device.
WHERE ARE THESE PASSES REQUIRED?
Vaccine passports will be more common on international flights. Some countries already require proof of vaccination for diseases like yellow fever, and the United States now requires a negative test for COVID-19 to enter the country, so a digital health passport isn’t a huge leap.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
Available vaccines are more effective in preventing serious illness, but that does not rule out the possibility that vaccinated travelers could transmit the virus.
“I think we have enough evidence at this point to say that these vaccines cut transmission, that vaccinated people are much less likely to transmit the disease,” says Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. “How much? We don’t know.” Assume it is around 80%.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against travel, even as the agency has relaxed other guidelines for people who have been vaccinated.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH JUSTICE?
Other critics say the certificates will primarily benefit people from wealthier countries and the relatively well-off people in each country, who are most likely to get vaccinated quickly and to have smartphones.
“It will be the rich, the privileged, who will be able to fly and other people will not have access to that,” says Lisa Eckenwiler, who teaches health ethics at George Mason University. She sees a particular potential for injustice if health passes expand to workplaces and schools.
WHAT ABOUT PRIVACY?
Consumers will be nervous about sharing health information that could be hacked or exposed in a breach, says Stephen Beck of management consultancy cg42.
“At the end of the day, people will wonder if sharing confidential information is worth the reward for a leisure trip.” he says, “and for many, the answer will be no.”
IATA and IBM say their countries use blockchain technology and information will not be stored in a central place.
WHAT ROLE WILL THE US GOVERNMENT PLAY?
Airlines and business groups are pushing 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 health certificate from being widely accepted.
But the Biden administration says it’s up to the private sector and nonprofits to figure out how Americans can prove they’ve been vaccinated or screened.
“It’s not the government’s role to keep that data and do that,” Andy Slavitt, a White House virus response adviser, said this week. “It must be private, the data must be secure, access to it must be free, it must be available both in digital and paper format and in several languages.”
Other governments, such as those of Israel and Denmark, are taking a more active role.
You can contact David Koenig at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter
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