Passports for Covid-19 vaccines are arriving. What does that mean?

“What if they have to show they’ve been vaccinated to walk into a grocery store or drugstore, and that’s not something their phone is capable of doing?” asks Maimuna Majumder, faculty member in the Computational Health Informatics program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “I don’t think anyone trying to create a smartphone app for a vaccine passport is thinking through that lens. This creates a situation where you are going to have to back-engineer solutions, which from a software development perspective is not something you want to do. “

It should be noted that those least likely to own a smartphone are also, in many cases, members of groups who have had difficulty accessing immunization – and, in addition, members of groups who are entitled to receive immunization. mistrust that the US government has their welfare in mind.

“We need to make sure that we don’t create more disparities than there already exist in our healthcare system,” said Justin Beck, founder of Contakt World, who works with the PathCheck Foundation on research applications of contacts and vaccine administration. “These go beyond just using a smartphone, to: What if people are not literate? What if they don’t speak English? What if they have real reasons why they are not getting the vaccine? Passports raise many fairness issues that go beyond the use of smartphones, and we will have to spend a lot of time and resources to overcome them. “

But minority groups aren’t the only slices of the United States that struggle to get vaccinated and therefore would not be eligible for a passport. Children are not yet eligible for vaccines; there were hesitations among pregnant women; and the Catholic bishops raised objections to one of the authorized vaccines. In addition, access to vaccines has varied so much by state that a large number of working-age adults who would like to be vaccinated are not yet qualified. As long as they have not been vaccinated, they cannot have a passport either.

The flip side of the exclusion problem lies in concerns about privacy: where is the data on immunization status kept, how much is shared, what will be the incentives to access it inappropriately? These are the same concerns that have kept contact tracing apps to be widely used in the United States last year. In a recent Daily Beast Editorial co-authored with Divya Ramjee, a criminal justice researcher and senior researcher at the Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology at the American University, Majumder argues that communities of color are more likely to face routine requests to quit to their privacy in order to qualify for government assistance. or because they belong to immigrant groups that are more likely to be monitored. Any app that looks like a similar invasion will meet resistance, she predicts.

The vaccine and passport discussion makes it seem like it happened suddenly, perhaps because, until now, governments have been more focused on vaccine development than on the life vision of the country. other side of a vaccination campaign. But if passports are meant to fuel the global economy as well as public life within nations, they must adhere to commonly agreed digital identity and interoperability standards – and these discussions fail to do so. that start now.

“Governments always try to do whatever they want, because they feel they have to own the data, not really understanding that you can build a system in a country, but someone else has to be able to accept it. data, ”says Chami Akmeemana, CEO of, whose Trybe.ID Travel Pass certifying vaccinations and test results has been adopted by the Singapore government. “At the moment, there is not a lot of roster.”

The paradox of vaccine passports, or whatever they end up being called, is that a tool meant to unite the world after lockdown could instead end up balkanizing it into closed systems where only certain applications are accepted, only certain brands of vaccine. are welcome, only the documentation is accessible. These foreseeable dangers make it necessary to proceed with caution. Otherwise, says Phelan, “it can potentially undermine international peace and security, as well as the solidarity necessary for the post-pandemic recovery to continue.”

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