Vaccine passports can be a temporary tool that allows travel to re-open. Since several Covid-19 vaccines have been shown not just to protect the person that’s vaccinated, but also to prevent spread, they can help assure a country that visitors who have had a shot are less likely to infect their citizens with the virus.
For vaccine passports to be useful, a large enough cohort of people need to have been vaccinated that it’ll make a difference in travel. At the same time, vaccine passports should no longer be necessary once there’s enough vaccine that anyone who wants one can get one.
The U.S. won’t need to limit travel to those who have been vaccinated. That’s because in a couple of months all citizens will have been able to get shots and become protected. The health care system won’t be at immediate risk of becoming overwhelmed. It will be important to watch for variants with the potential evade vaccines, and likely to update vaccines or provide boosters. But restricting travel won’t be necessary here.
In contrast, countries where most of the population remains vulnerable to the virus – that haven’t been hard hit yet, and that have been slow to vaccinate – will need to ensure that travelers don’t bring the virus with them. Much of the Asia Pacific region falls into this category.
At the same time, there are thorny questions presented by vaccine passports – both practical and ethical.
- What counts as vaccinated? What vaccines count (China so far is saying only Chinese-made vaccines are acceptable, but would a vaccine not approved in the U.S. be eligible here)? Is a second dose of a two-dose regime needed, if the first dose appears roughly as effective as a one dose vaccine (eg Pfizer vs. J&J)? How long do vaccine passports last, when we don’t yet know how long vaccine protection lasts? What kind of proof is acceptable and how secure and difficult to fake is it?
- What are the ethics of excluding the unvaccinated? Are there carveouts for those whose health or moral objections preclude their vaccination? Do the unvaccinated have a right to travel and how does that compare with the rights of others not to be around people that may be infectious? What does a world look like where citizens of whole countries or continents are less likely to be permitted to travel than those of other countries and continents?
These are complex issues, and while some countries have opened up to the vaccinated, if supply grows fast enough and the pandemic is controlled vaccine passports may ultimately be more of an academic question than practical reality for most – enforcement is uneven inside Israel, even.
However there are not very complex issues and weak arguments against vaccine passports, too. I was disappointed especially to see one such example offered by Dr. Drew Pinsky.
I was a huge fan of Loveline with Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla in the mid- to late-90s. But here he just seems to not understand how vaccination requirements for international travel worked in the pre-pandemic world.
These vaccine passports segregate people and strip them of their freedom to travel internationally. Vaccinations are important, and I encourage everyone to get the Covid vaccine, but how would you feel if international travel also required other vaccinations?
— Dr. Drew (@drdrew) April 5, 2021
Smallpox vaccination was commonly required for international travel up until 1980 when the disease was declared eradicated. Vaccine certificates were imperfect – they were faked, they weren’t always checked, and some people who had been vaccinated and had certificates didn’t have immunity for one reason or another. But they provided some assurances, and also incentivized those who traveled to get vaccinated contributing to the eradiation of the disease.
Several countries in Africa and Asia require proof of Yellow Fever vaccination if arriving from a country where that is prevalent. Requirements vary, for instance whether a vaccination certificate is required for international-to-international transfer or only for entry into the country. It’s always important to look up travel requirements before you attempt to cross a border.
There are requirements to show vaccination against meningococcal meningitis and polio for entry into certain countries as well, depending on your recent travel history.
The notion that vaccine documents as a condition of travel is a bright line we’d be crossing for the first time, and therefore risking a slippery slope, is wrong on the facts. However since we’re in a global pandemic, vaccine passports could be required on a larger scale than ever before and the complex arguments should thus be taken seriously.