TRAVEL: Vaccine passports may hold the key to tourism’s safe return – David Jessop

From Russia to Singapore, nations around the world are considering providing citizens who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 with digital immunity certificates for domestic and international use. Their principal objective is to stimulate national economic recovery and a gradual return to normality.

Such ‘vaccine passports’ may, however, come to play an important role in the restoration of international tourism as more people in wealthier nations are immunised against COVID-19.         

Significantly, Israel, having vaccinated 30 percent of its citizens and over 80% of those in older age groups, is now negotiating bilateral protocols to establish vaccine passport corridors for those wanting to holiday in Greece and Cyprus.

Elsewhere, the African Union Commission is developing with the continent’s health authorities a ‘My COVID Pass’ for travellers, allowing for the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results and vaccines; the European Council, at the request of some member states, is considering ‘passports’ as a way to support EU economic recovery; and in Britain a high-level Cabinet-led task force is to report soon on the issues involved. At the same time, the aviation industry through IATA has begun [trying] a multifunctional ‘Travel Pass’ for airline use that may be rolled out soon.

Despite this, the development and use of immunity certificates [are] complex and contentious, raising  practical and ethical issues.

Technically, the development of a COVID-19 vaccine passport involves placing a validated secure machine readable QR code on a mobile phone. However, the real-world challenges involved in achieving this are considerable.

A recent academic study published by the Royal Society in London describes in detail the issues that every state would need to address before any COVID-19 passport system is introduced for international use.

Vaccine passports for travel would have to reveal in a receiving country if the holder is protected from illness and unable to transmit the virus; show vaccine efficacy; be subject to international acceptance; and detail whether the vaccine given is effective against new or emerging variants. It would also have to be easily portable, interoperable, affordable, and have a clearly defined use.  Any such passport would also have to be secure, legal, ethical and non-discriminatory.

Professor Melinda Mills, the director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, one of the study’s authors, says that that a clear understanding of the use to which any such passport is put is essential. Is it, she asks, a passport to allow international travel, or should it be initially used to allow a holder greater freedom at home?

She is concerned that vaccine passports require a level of agreement on the science of immunity and could “inadvertently discriminate or exacerbate existing inequalities.” Professor Mills also raises significant legal and ethical questions, for example relating to the denial of travel to those who are vaccine-less or lack a mobile phone.

What the Royal Society report makes abundantly clear is that if any vaccine passport is to be universally viable, it requires international standardization and to follow the lead of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO, however, continues to caution against ‘immunity certificates.’ Despite this, it has begun to explore the issue, recently convening a group of experts to define specifications and standards for a digital vaccination certificate that could facilitate vaccine monitoring and ‘support cross-border uses.’

Although the group has yet to report, it is already apparent that any WHO related smart vaccination certificate will have to meet multiple criteria and will, as it says, need to be ‘coordinated, time-limited, risk-based and evidence-based’ when it comes to international travel.

If, as many epidemiologists believe, mutants of the virus could be with us for years to come, vaccine passports coupled with the now urgently needed region-wide roll out of vaccines and then later, booster programs will become essential.

What happened in much of the region over Christmas and the New Year makes the point that without both, Caribbean tourism and the wider regional economy are unlikely to recover sustainably.

After the positive early regionwide suppression of the virus in 2020, the holiday period saw many countries in the region experience a surge in infections from both imported cases of the virus and local indiscipline. This occurred even though visitor arrivals numbers remained very low and the thousands of cruise passengers who normally visit for hours were absent.

The consequence was that governments in both the region and its source markets have since adopted travel restrictions that are antipathetic to the rapid return of the 31.5 million stay over visitors and 30.2 mlion cruise landings the Caribbean saw in 2019.

Without widespread immunization and vaccine passports, it is therefore hard to see how the industry’s viability and tourism’s broader economic role can start to be restored, let alone the high intensity contact necessary to welcome every visitor so they can safely interact with sellers of services and the wider community.

Hopefully, as WHO’s list of certified vaccines increases, and if Cuba’s Soberana 02 vaccine proves efficacious and becomes available through the WHO’s COVAX facility, it will be possible before the year’s end to have vaccinated significant numbers of at-risk Caribbean citizens, key workers and others deemed essential to economic recovery.

In the meantime, governments, the industry, and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) should be considering jointly responding to the various logistical, commercial and ethical issues raised by travel vaccination certification: not least because pent up demand among vaccinated consumers in the region’s principal source markets may soon surge, driving the rapid introduction of travel passports and global competition for visitors.

To fully restart tourism and end the stop-start approach now being seen across the region will require not just a review of the confusing mélange of entry requirements that now exist and their variable enforcement, but new thinking about how in future countries intend testing, tracing and responding to the high volumes of visitors the region has previously seen.

The region’s meagre resources and over dependence on tourism, suggest that this will mean the development of safe travel bilateral corridors from North America and Europe utilizing digital vaccine certification.

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Comments

  • brandli62  On 03/03/2021 at 4:27 am

    This will happened sooner than later. You will not be able to board a plane without prove of being vaccinated against SARS-CoV2. If you like it or not. No commercial airline will want to be liable for damages caused by transporting infected passengers. Swiss International Airlines was banned for one week from flying into China in December 2020 after a passengers tested positive on arrival in China.

  • kamtanblog  On 03/03/2021 at 4:49 am

    Absolute hogwash !
    Pipe dream to get international agreement on this one. Test on departure/arrival a more practical solution. No need for international agreement.
    Common sense approach way forward.

    My two cents

    K

  • Winston  On 03/03/2021 at 8:48 am

    From what I’ve been reading, you will still have to wear a mask and practice social distancing when moving around in your community, despite taking a vaccine. Also masks will still have to be worn on aeroplanes even after taking the vaccine. So what is the point of the vaccine? You cannot have herd immunity if you’re still following those protocols after being vaccinated.

  • guyaneseonline  On 03/03/2021 at 10:19 am

    Lincoln said… in another thread…

    With the buffet of vaccines being offered worldwide by various governments, how will they come up with an internationally uniformed vaccination? In their rush to vaccinate their population, countries are purchasing millions of vaccines of different brands and citizens are being told that they will not be able to choose the vaccine of their choice at the moment. How will the international uniformed vaccine be decided and by whom? What happens to citizens who have already been vaccinated but not with the internationally uniformed brand once it has been decided?

    No proper thought was put into this worldwide vaccination blitz nor what the end result would be after this rush to market. Citizens are being sold a bill of goods that’s rotten to the core. The entire program is a mess!!

    Lincoln

  • wally n  On 03/03/2021 at 10:45 am

    Do you know that one chinese man in his basement can print thousands of American ballots, hundreds of any passport, well, he is gonna clean up on this piece of crap. Look him up at “Print anything for a buck” and BTW good luck.

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