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If you’ve been plugged into travel news during the pandemic, you’ve probably heard the term “vaccine passport” more than once. After all, these digital health passports will likely be a crucial part of the travel industry as it rebounds.
Right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a physical vaccination card that tells you key facts about your inoculation, including the date you received the vaccine and the type you received.
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But the industry is searching for ways to convert this information into a digital health passport you could display on your phone. In addition to details about the COVID-19 vaccine, a vaccine passport could track and organize other pieces of health information too, such as recent coronavirus test results and other inoculations needed for travel, such as the yellow fever shot.
There are several vaccine passports either in development or already available for travel, but perhaps the most well-known app comes from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of airlines around the world. It developed a Travel Pass app that can host both verified COVID-19 test results and vaccine information.
IATA partners with dozens of airlines, including ANA, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic. The IATA Travel Pass app is available for download on the Apple Store, but IATA says that travelers will not be able to use it unless their airline is part of a trial. In addition to its partnerships with airlines, the company is also working to verify COVID-19 vaccination credentials with certain countries. IATA recently announced that the EU COVID Certificate — Europe’s vaccine passport — can be used with its Travel Pass app.
Many people have questions about vaccine passports and how they will play a role in travel. To find out more about what digital health passports might look like, TPG spoke with Nick Careen, a senior vice president at IATA, earlier this year.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What is the IATA Travel Pass and how will it work?
Careen: What the Travel Pass is designed to do is to digitize [paper COVID-19 results], so instead of having to show up at the airport with your piece of paper and queue up in a line and wait for someone to validate it — and then subsequently get through a check-in process and then onboard an aircraft — we’re proposing that you would be able to do that electronically. It’s digitizing an existing manual process as it stands today.
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Can the app be standardized?
Careen: There is no standard in place in terms of what the key elements of a certificate would look like nor even the digitalization of a certificate … from one country to another, and no one is following any level of consistency whatsoever.
(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in March 2021. To this day, there is still no standardized vaccine passport for use globally. However, some vaccine credentials, such as the EU COVID Certificate, are recognized by IATA’s Travel Pass. )
What if you’ve already been vaccinated?
Careen: We’re going to need to have processes in place that would allow consumers to upload their current vaccination status. That may take multiple forms that could be an [optical character recognition that] formats pictures or PDF files. Those types of things will need to be incorporated into the app to [accommodate] those who have been vaccinated prior to a standard being released.
How will the app weed out fake COVID-19 results or vaccine certificates?
Careen: Given the variations [of COVID-19 test results and vaccine certificates] out there and the way it’s being dealt with [using] a piece of paper, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult to ask any normal check-in agent in an airline environment to validate what’s real and what isn’t. We simply don’t have that capability, and we do our best to train them as much as possible [about] things to look for, but it is wrought with risk.
There needs to be a certified list of registered labs to issue that [testing] certificate. That [certificate] would need to be matched against your digital identity and the app that makes it foolproof. [Your results] would reside on your app as a verifiable credential, and that would eliminate the issues around fraudulent testing. Subsequently, when we get to the vaccination piece, it would work the same way.
How will travelers add information to the app?
Careen: In this case, what we’re thinking is you would take a picture or a scan of that particular credential, which would, in this case, be a CDC vaccination card with your name on it. We would need to verify that against your digital credential that has been created in the app to make sure that the content is accurate because we don’t want to have a situation where we’ve created a case where someone has a fake card that’s uploaded.
There has to be some verification in the background that we would interrogate against your name and location to ensure that the certificate was valid. But again, we don’t set those standards — the government does.
Featured photo by Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.