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Explainer: Merits and drawbacks of vaccine passports

Countries look to open up travel to boost economic activities, there are also concerns to protect the lives of people from the novel coronavirus.

One of the ways to allow for free movement of people into countries and not compromise on safety is to deploy ‘harmless’ strategies that could protect the country and its citizens from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

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A component of these strategies includes embracing a simpler COVID-19 testing regime, ensuring affordable, competitive airport costs, and working for net-zero air transport, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Responses to the pandemic, such as lockdowns and border closures, have often been framed in terms of striking a balance between protecting people’s health and protecting the economy, though whether there is a real trade-off for these measures is still uncertain.

When it comes to vaccine passports and COVID status apps that may allow vaccinated individuals exemption from restrictions and greater access to goods and services, it is important to ask how much economic benefit such a scheme would provide, and what risks to public health it might run if any.

No COVID-19 vaccine so far produced is 100 percent effective at preventing disease and the evidence on prevention of transmission is still emerging.

Travel experts say this means that allowing those vaccinated to be exempt from certain restrictions, as validated by a vaccine passport, will still run some public health risks. Individual and collective risk will also depend on how the effectiveness of immune response varies over time and between different vaccines themselves.

What are vaccine passports?

Vaccine passports or health passes are documents – in paper or digital format that certify a person is unlikely to either contract or spread disease.

With the novel coronavirus, the proposed certificates would attest one of three things: that the holder has been vaccinated, has tested negative for the virus or has recovered from it.

With these passports, governments could lift some pandemic-induced restrictions, allowing people to travel in planes, attend concerts, go to work or dine out, supporters say.

Countries subscribe to vaccine passports

Bahrain launched a digital COVID-19 vaccine passport in February 2021, one of the first countries to do so.

Denmark has launched an initial version of a coronavirus vaccination passport, while Sweden plans to launch a vaccine passport soon.

Last October, Estonia and the World Health Organization started a pilot for a digital vaccine certificate.

Meanwhile, China has put in place an app-based health code system that uses travel and medical data to give people a red, yellow or green rating indicating the likelihood of them having the virus – and whether or not they can walk around freely.

Israel has said it plans to issue a “green passport” to those who have been vaccinated, which will grant them easy access to restaurants and cultural events, and exempt them from quarantine rules or getting a virus test before travel.

Chile said it would issue certificates to people who recovered from the virus.

In India, everyone who has been vaccinated gets a QR code-based electronic certificate.

The International Air Transport Association, the lobby group of the world’s airlines, said it would launch a digital health travel pass in 2021 that will include passengers’ COVID-19.

Drawbacks of vaccine passports

Vaccine passports have raised a number of public health and privacy concerns.

The passports’ scientific grounding has also been called into question, as it is still not clear whether people who recover from COVID-19 are protected from a second infection – or, if they are, for how long.

Passes based on negative test results have a short shelf life, as people can catch the virus any time after taking the test, Alexandra Phelan, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C said.

The passes also rely on wide access to rapid testing, Phelan added.

With researchers warning that it might take years to get everyone a shot as rich nations buy up more than half of the available stock, linking travel to vaccination could also leave a large part of the world grounded, she added.

“We risk a situation where only wealthy countries have had access to the vaccine that is accepted for travel. And they’re the only ones travelling,” she said.

Less consideration for Africa

Advocates for the vaccine passports have been accused of allegedly not considering Africa’s continent which appears to be the continent with the least fully vaccinated citizens.

According to the Africa Centre for Disease Control, only 4.57 percent of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, a far cry when compared to Europe with over 70 percent fully vaccinated citizens or 55 percent fully vaccinated Americans.

African Ministers of Aviation have described the proposal to impose vaccine passports for air travellers as unacceptable. They say it is tantamount to discrimination against certain groups of the population, especially on the African continent which still has a considerable number of its citizens who are yet to receive the vaccines.

They also described the proposal as going against the intent of the Chicago Convention on the need to preserve friendship and understanding, reduce the threat to general security and establish international air transport based on an equal opportunity, operated soundly and economically.

The African Ministers Delegation’s position was made known on Wednesday in a presentation to the ongoing International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) High-Level Conference on Covid-19 by Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika.

Other options to vaccine passports

Rather than imposing vaccine passports, the African delegation recommended that States party to the Convention on international civil aviation should continue to minimize the risks during travel by ensuring compliance with existing multinational treaties, international frameworks, guidelines, and recommendations.

Sirika, on their behalf, also recommended that Human rights, regional/continental/global health security, economic growth, social cohesion, and good international relations, and use of innovation and technology worldwide to harmonize requirements should be promoted, while transmission of critical information across borders related to public health issues such as COVID-19 and coordination among key players should also be considered.

He also stated that African nations frowned at States imposing unilateral measures of global nature related to public health and asked such states to refrain from such practices and instead take measures that would facilitate the reopening and reconnection of the world.

“There is a clear onus on both public and private stakeholders, to take a full measure of the dire circumstances now facing the air transport sector, and to ensure sufficient operational sustainability.

“These actions are critical to making sure that the world is adequately reconnected, as aviation plays a critical role in the global economic recovery and achieve the realization of the goals of both AU Agenda 2063 and UN Agenda 2030 for sustainable development”.

On the general strategies for recovery, Sirika said: “the global distribution of emergency and humanitarian supplies including the vaccines will no doubt depend on an economically viable aviation system. Aviation is also capable of stimulating the recovery and growth of the global economy by acting as an enabler and multiplier of economic activity.

“Considering that the global aviation industry operates as an interconnected ecosystem, it is therefore imperative that all the States of the world implement the ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Taskforce (CART) recommendations and guidance, which are based on the latest development of the COVID-19.

“ICAO, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, is required to bring to maturity in the short term a consensual modality for establishment and deployment of a global health passport as well as the specification of infrastructure (soft/hard) and training of professionals,” Sirika said.

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