What’s a Vaccine Passport and Do You Need One?

The future of travel may call for proof you've been vaccinated against Covid-19.

The future of travel during Covid-19

So you got the Covid-19 vaccine. Is it a ticket to take a trip wherever you want? Some tourist destinations say yes, as the concept of a “vaccine passport” circulates around the world.

While this is a problem-solving suggestion that could work for travel companies, tourists, doctors, and governments, the idea also comes with some major concerns and dilemmas, from efficacy to ethics.

Here are the main points to consider as you start to hear more about vaccine passports.

(Here are some expert tips on coronavirus and travel.)

What is a vaccine passport?

In theory, the idea is very straightforward: You get the Covid-19 vaccine (after doing the full course—right now, it’s two doses) and the vaccination card that you’ve been given will act as an entry pass into destinations around the world.

Ideally, this would ensure that you’re unlikely to spread the virus. However, the implications are way more complicated. (Here are the differences between the Moderna vs. Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines.)

Currently, in a few locations, such as Seychelles and Cyprus, vaccine passports are a reality, being used in place of a negative test and quarantining upon arrival.

But for most places, it’s simply a concept that might work in the future.

The idea of documenting travelers’ vaccines, and regulating entry based on them, is not new. Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist specializing in travel medicine, points to the globally recognized system for yellow fever certificates.

“The yellow fever vaccine available around the world is reliable and known to give long-term immunity. Countries have designated yellow fever centers—that have been trained and recognized to be knowledgeable about how to evaluate a traveler’s health history, travel itinerary, etc.—and then provide a certificate that is valid,” she says. “Something similar would have to happen [with Covid-19].”

(These are the travel vaccinations and medications to know about.)

What current travel rules do exist?

A U.S. Department of State official says that though they couldn’t speculate on the potential development of a vaccine-related travel pass, they reiterate the current rules as of Jan. 26.

“All air passengers two years of age or older arriving in the United States must provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test or proof of recovery from Covid-19 before boarding,” they say. “This order applies to both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, regardless of vaccination status.”

(Here are the vaccine facts you should know.)

Do I need a vaccine passport to travel right now?

No, not in most cases. The vaccine passport is a concept various groups and organizations are working on developing, not something that is currently required.

In more cases than not, a negative Covid-19 test is needed to travel through airports, cruise lines, and other means, especially as the vaccine isn’t yet widely available.

Who is working on making a vaccine passport?

The better question is, who isn’t? Governments, travel and tech companies, and other organizations are scrambling to be the first and most thorough to roll out vaccine passport-type apps and programs.

President Joe Biden recently revealed his initial plans through an executive order, which calls for further promotion of safe international travel, including working with international entities, about implications of the vaccine and travel restrictions.

Airlines are already using passes to show digital proof of testing

Multiple airlines have already started rolling out digital proof of testing, such as the International Air Transport Association’s “digital travel pass,” which Etihad Airways and Emirates airline will begin using soon.

Delta and Alitalia will soon replace their quarantining rules for passengers arriving in Italy with a “digital health passport.”

What’s more, the CommonPass platform has started allowing digital documentation of multiple types of Covid-19 tests, including vaccinations, for airlines such as JetBlue, United Airlines, and others. The CommonPass platform was launched by the World Economic Forum and coalition of other groups to allow people to document their Covid-19 status to satisfy countries’ entry requirements.

Covid-19 immunity passportDusan Stankovic/Getty Images

What experts say about vaccine passports

The medical community and tourism experts don’t necessarily agree on how effective and doable the concept could be.

While some tourism experts see it as a gateway to reopening travel across the world, feeding a starving tourism industry, medical experts have doubts.

What the medical experts say

Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor in the division of infectious disease at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, doesn’t think vaccine passports are a wise or beneficial idea.

“Think of it this way—having a driver’s license is clearly an indication that you are qualified to drive. You passed the eye test, rule test, and driver’s exam,” says Dr. Fichtenbaum. “But having proof of vaccination does not mean you cannot currently have or get Covid infection.”

Dr. Mavunda agrees, saying the world is “not ready” for international standardized travel passports, citing imperfections will all types of available testing.

“There is a [polymerase chain reaction] PCR test, which is more reliable, however, it takes longer to get the results [than a rapid test]. If a person has had Covid infection, the PCR test may stay positive, even if the person has cleared the infection,” explains Dr. Mavunda.

Some tests, like the rapid antigen test, deliver fast results but may have a higher likelihood of false positives, says Dr. Mavunda, “especially if the sample has not been collected properly.”

What the tourism industry says

Andre Robles, managing director at Voyagers Travel Company in Budd Lake, New Jersey, says the tourism industry “would deeply welcome a vaccine passport.”

“On one hand, it brings some peace of mind to know you are in contact with somebody that is not infected—the stress factor is important here. The traveler can enjoy their trip and not have to be screened at every airport, hotel, etc. and it will also help in the case of falling ill,” he says. “They will not have to worry about being confused as a Covid patient and will receive proper treatment for their ailments.”

Robles hopes to see the whole world play by the same rules and that it would give the travel industry “a breather” and possibly recover thousands of jobs. (Traveling locally? Here’s how to avoid coronavirus on public transportation.)

Would an “immunity passport” be more effective?

The vaccines are still in the early stages of being studied, but they’re thought to be highly effective. However, there are questions that remain. For example, it’s not clear if a vaccinated person who gets the virus can still possibly transmit it even if they don’t get sick or have obvious symptoms themselves.

As these considerations are still being analyzed, some developers look towards creating and improving antibody tests instead that travelers might easily use to prove their immunity (either after a vaccine or after recovering from Covid-19).

One such developer, John Huemoeller, CEO of AXIM Biotechnologies, has been working with his team on an “immunity passport,” which shows qualitative and quantitative measures of neutralizing antibodies in a patient.

For around $20, this could be used to test travelers right before a flight or trip.

“Neutralizing antibodies are the only thing that matter in a post-vaccine world,” he says. “We can see a world where you’ve had the vaccine, but you are going to get on the cruise ship eight months later…in 10 minutes I can tell you if you have antibodies [still].”

He sees the vaccine passport concept as more irresponsible than an immunity passport.

On the other hand, Adrian Hyzler, MD, chief medical officer at Healix International, a travel and security firm, says the problem with antibody tests is that we don’t know what level of antibodies are effective, so their presence is “not an effective measure of protection,” but just one factor.

“Unfortunately with Covid-19 we’ve learned the goalposts are constantly changing,” Dr. Hyzler says.

The ethical and safety concerns of a Covid-19 vaccine passport

As anyone who has tried to get vaccinated already and can’t access the shot will attest to, there isn’t fair and equal access right now to the vaccine, across populations, age groups, and countries.

“First, the assumption that a traveler can easily get the vaccine is where the problem begins,” says Andrew Mendonsa, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Northern California. “Many minority residents simply do not trust the health care system due to experienced bias, institutional racism, or simply poor care.”

There are also often costs and other barriers associated with getting vaccinated. “Perhaps poor health, needing to get a ride, co-pays, or taking time off from a job where a person isn’t legally working and does not have paid sick time can be barriers,” he says.

This is concerning to many people. Almost 70 percent of those surveyed in a 2021 Vaccines and Privacy Study from NordVPN, an internet security company, said they had concerns about not being able to travel if they haven’t been vaccinated. Approximately 77 percent of survey respondents worry about accessing public places. (These are the public places doctors avoid during the pandemic.)

Mendonsa worries that these types of restrictions will cause people who can’t legally travel to “pursue unsafe travel options,” and could also lead to “one group of people freely traveling and the other not.”

There are also potential issues with data security. Dr. Hyzler says apps will need to be linked to the traveler’s passport for security and will ideally be in-app form on a mobile device.

“There is a growing trade in fraudulent certificates,” he says. The Covid-19 Credential Initiative is a global community that’s working to deploy privacy-preserving credential projects in the wake of the pandemic.

Privacy protection and fraud prevention are essential, according to Lucy Yang, community director of the Covid-19 Credential Initiative. That could be done with verifiable digital credentials, which are tamperproof electronic versions of identification.

Verifiable credentials have a unique architecture and use “modern cryptography that enables individuals to have better control of their personal data while giving verifiers a high level of assurance of the authenticity of the credentials,” she says.

The bottom line

The future of a vaccine passport is still uncertain as it introduces a lot of ethical and safety concerns.

The U.S. Department of State official continues to “strongly recommend U.S. citizens reconsider travel abroad” altogether if possible. If not, James Ferrara, co-founder and president of InteleTravel, a travel agency, recommends the following travel advice to his clients:

  • Know your infection status, and the entry and quarantine requirements of your destination and own country for re-entry.

  • Have “real expectations” of what you will and won’t be able to do while you are there.

  • Get high-quality tests before, during, and after, and carry documentation of your results.

  • Have “good travel insurance” from a third-party company, not the trip supplier.

  • Get help from a travel agent who is familiar with all of the above.

Also, most importantly, follow Covid-19 safety protocols, like wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing by staying six feet apart, and washing your hands in public spaces.

Sources

Alex Frost
Alex Frost is a Cincinnati-based journalist specializing in parenting, relationships, education, fashion, trends, and lifestyle writing. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Healthline, Today's Parent, Glamour, Women's Health, Cox Media publications, Cincinnati Enquirer, and other publications. Frost is known for her relatable, no-nonsense approach to parenting, writing, and life as she juggles freelancing with three sons under four years old, and her other part-time job as a journalism teacher.