A vaccine passport is proof that you’ve tested negative for or been protected against certain infections. It can be digital, like a phone app, or physical, such as a small paper card. You can carry it with you and show it if required, like before you go into the office, board an airplane, or visit a restaurant, movie theater, or gym.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the idea is that with a vaccine passport system in place, companies could fully open for business to anyone who shows proof of vaccination. Countries might resume international travel without requiring quarantines. This would help boost economies while limiting the spread of the disease.
It’s a new play on an old idea. For years, people who’ve traveled to certain areas of the world have needed to show papers -- or a medical passport called a yellow card, created by the World Health Organization (WHO) -- to prove that they’ve gotten vaccines against diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and rubella.
But there are some big concerns about vaccine passports. WHO has said that international travelers shouldn’t be required to show proof that they’ve gotten a coronavirus vaccine. There are “critical unknowns” about how effective the vaccines are, the group says, especially with the spread of more infectious COVID variants. The Royal Society, an academy of sciences in the United Kingdom, agrees that a vaccine passport system should take into account how well different vaccines fight the COVID variants.
WHO also says that because the supply of COVID-19 vaccines is still limited, “preferential vaccination of travelers” could lead to a shortage of shots for people who need them most: those at high risk of getting severely sick from the virus. And because a large percentage of the supply is going toward people or countries of higher socioeconomic status, the system would be tilted in their favor.
In addition, the Royal Society says it’s important that any vaccine passport system allow people to share their medical status without revealing more personal health information.
The U.S. doesn’t have digital vaccine passports yet, but President Joe Biden has issued an executive order that asks federal agencies to look into the possibility.
Some organizations and businesses are developing their own digital health pass programs. The International Air Transport Association, a trade group of 290 airlines, has a Travel Pass app that’s promoted as a way to help travelers store documents that show they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.
A few countries have also created some form of COVID-19 passport, including Israel, China, and Bahrain.