The Biden administration is aggressively working on vaccine passports for the U.S.. This wouldn’t just be used for travel – but potentially for some jobs and events.
New York is working on its own vaccine passports. The World Health Organization, European Union, and at least 14 other entities are as well. And several companies are looking to get in on this work. The U.S. federal government is driving on standards for this for “promoting safe return to social, commercial, and leisure activities” according to an official document leaked to the Washington Post though citizens aren’t going to be required to get them.
The Biden administration and private companies are working to develop a standard way of handling credentials — often referred to as “vaccine passports” — that would allow Americans to prove they have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as businesses try to reopen.
The effort has gained momentum amid President Biden’s pledge that the nation will start to regain normalcy this summer and with a growing number of companies — from cruise lines to sports teams — saying they will require proof of vaccination before opening their doors again.
Vaccine passports may be necessary for international travel, but not for domestic activities.
- Vaccines in the U.S. will be in sufficient supply that anyone who wants one can get one. That’s no more than a couple of months away, and this effort is several months off. By the time vaccine passports are available, anyone who wants a dose will already be protected.
- Once everyone can be vaccinated, they’re largely protected. There’s still a chance they could get Covid, but it’s really unlikely to be severe. We don’t have vaccine passports for flu.
- If everyone who wants to be protected is protected, then we shouldn’t worry as much about those who choose not to be, or keeping away those who choose not to be.
The rest of the world will take far longer to have widespread vaccine access. Countries whose populations remain vulnerable won’t want to bring in virus. So vaccines allow for travel to open, especially to the extent that data supports vaccinated individuals not only being protected from Covid-19, but also not spreading the virus. Proof of vaccination will likely be required for much of international travel for awhile.
Vaccine passports aren’t nearly as important for the U.S. once everyone here has had a chance to be vaccinated, but these passports entail a number of complications that go into whether they’re effective. I’ve suggested that these complications make vaccine passports more for show than actual protection.
- Which vaccines count? China is already doing vaccine passports but accepting Sinovac (perhaps 50% effective) but not mRNA vaccines (~ 95% effective). This is at a minimum an order-of-magnitude way of looking at things.
- Does a vaccine have to be approved to be accepted? AstraZeneca is approved in 70 countries, but not the U.S. Would a U.K. citizen be considered vaccinated after taking the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab?
- What counts as vaccination? The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is just one dose, while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved as two-dose regimens even though each may be as effective as Johnson & Johnson after a single shot. What about the two-dose AstraZeneca regimen, but where the U.K. is pursuing a ‘first doses first’ strategy and delaying second doses?
- How long are passports valid? Booster shots may be required, both for continued protection and to adapt to variants. Will those be required to keep vaccine passports active? We don’t know how long vaccines are yet effective, but vaccine passports will have to have expiry dates.
There will have to be a lot of compromises, and each one limits the effectiveness of a ‘guarantee’ that someone has been vaccinated. And that’s before even getting into the security of these passports.
In the U.S. there’s only limited reason to fake a vaccination card, since it’s going to be easy to get a shot within a couple of months. Only the vaccine skeptics who don’t want to take a shot but who want to present themselves as having done so (versus grandstanding that they will not do so) who might need to forge credentials. For the rest of the world, where vaccines will remain scarce longer, fraud is going to be a significant issue.
That said, there are other reasons some are pushing for vaccine passports.
- This is going to be used not just for credentials but to motivate vaccine skeptics who want to “go on vacation and resume other aspects of daily life.”
- And they could be used to tie individuals to specific shots and future health outcomes, for evaluating long-term efficacy of the vaccines themselves.
Of course the data states and the CDC currently have on vaccinations that have been deployed is messier than we often imagine when looking up statistics on distribution of doses. It may be difficult to tie people to records in existing databases to prove vaccination, and CDC vaccine cards are easily faked – just card stock anyone can print and write on.