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Vaccine Passports Q&A: What is a digital vaccine passport? Will it allow me to travel or take holidays?

Vaccine passports may be our ticket to travel at some stage next year, but how will they work, and when might they be available?

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CommonPass hopes to be "a trusted, globally-interoperable platform for people to document their COVID-19 status "

CommonPass hopes to be "a trusted, globally-interoperable platform for people to document their COVID-19 status "

CommonPass hopes to be "a trusted, globally-interoperable platform for people to document their COVID-19 status "

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, health and travel officials have pointed to vaccinations as the route back to unrestricted travel.

Now, even before a vaccine has become widely available, two apps that aim to verify travellers' inoculation are taking off as verification for required test results and health waivers - with one trialling on international air routes.

But what is a vaccine passport, and how will it be utilised for a safe return to travel? Here's what experts say the programs aim to accomplish, what their limitations are and where they are already used.

What is a vaccine passport?

Also called health passports, vaccine passports are mainly intended for international travel. They have so far taken the form of free mobile apps where travellers upload their verified coronavirus test results and, eventually, may show proof of a Covid-19 vaccination.

Two main options for a vaccine passport exist so far, with one already in operation and the other in its final phase of development this month.

CommonPass, a health pass created by the nonprofit Commons Project, has been in trial use internationally since October on United and Cathay Pacific flights between New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong to verify coronavirus test results. The program operates through Apple's Health app on iOS and CommonHealth for Android. It functions as a scannable QR code that holds a passenger's test data or vaccine documentation, as well as travel plans. The program, which is only in trials through participating airlines, is not yet publicly available for download.

Another app in development by the International Air Transport Association, the IATA Travel Pass is expected to launch in early 2021. The mobile pass will be available for Apple users to start and will be rolled out to Android users slightly later, according to IATA. In addition to holding a passenger's testing, vaccine and health-waiver documentation, the IATA app will also provide travellers with a registry of health requirements and testing/vaccination centres.

"The main priority is to get people traveling again safely," IATA said in a statement. "In the immediate term that means establishing confidence in governments that systematic pre-departure Covid-19 testing can work as a replacement for quarantine requirements. And that will eventually develop into a vaccine program."

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Screengrabs of what the CommonPass app may look like.

Screengrabs of what the CommonPass app may look like.

Screengrabs of what the CommonPass app may look like.

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CommonPass also has a focus on protecting travellers' personal information, and Commons Project Chief Marketing Officer Thomas Crampton said the program was developed in anticipation of a need for people to share their health status when they travel.

"When vaccination does take place, the architecture is such that people will now be able to gather, manage and share their vaccination status, as well as their testing status, in a privacy-protecting matter," Crampton said.

The implementation of the app will be up to airlines and local governments requiring test results or vaccines for travel.

What do the passports mean for travel?

A vaccine passport, experts note, is not an "immunity passport."

It is still unclear how long immunity lasts after recovering from the virus or after receiving a vaccine, and it is also unclear if recipients of Covid-19 vaccines can potentially carry and spread the virus without experiencing symptoms themselves.

Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said a majority of people will need to take the vaccine for a herd immunity to be achieved.

"Immunity itself is not a means for travel with an assumption you can't [spread] the virus," Doron said. "With a vaccine passport we still actually don't know, once you're vaccinated, whether you can get into an asymptomatic carrier state and transmit it just as easily as someone not vaccinated... We may find out that people who are vaccinated may still be able to carry the disease in their airways."

Administration of Pfizer's vaccines has already begun in the UK, and is expected to follow shortly in the US if the FDA authorises it this weekend. The Irish Government has said it could begin rollout here from early January.

Will travellers be required to show proof of vaccination?

This remains to be seen... and it may differ depending on the type of trip.

Nadhim Zahawi, the UK minister responsible for the Covid-19 vaccine, has suggested that businesses could bar those who do not have the jab, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has said passengers may in future be required to prove they have had a Covid vaccine before travelling on his airline's international flights.

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Passengers travelling during the pandemic. Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

Passengers travelling during the pandemic. Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

Passengers travelling during the pandemic. Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

However, Ryanair has said “no vaccine cert will be required for EU short-haul flights".

"Under the EU system of free movement, we believe quarantine restrictions will be removed in Spring ‘21 once effective vaccines become available to protect high-risk groups from Covid-19,” it added.

Where are vaccine passports already in use?

Starting this month, passengers can use CommonPass for testing verification on five new international routes.

"CommonTrust Network airlines JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic will begin the roll-out of CommonPass in December on select flights departing from New York, Boston, London, and Hong Kong," the Commons Project said in a statement.

That is in addition to the trial routes that began in October for air travel to or from London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore on Cathay Pacific Airways and United Airlines.

Three airline alliances - Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance - have endorsed the app and highlighted the need for a global system of testing and vaccine verification.

"Ahead of a vaccine, ensuring customers understand the latest testing requirements to travel is vital to building consumer confidence and the CommonPass solution is an important step towards offering a common international standard," Corneel Koster, chief customer and operating officer of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement.

"We expect governments to move with urgency towards aligned testing standards and in parallel, to implement a robust pre-departure testing regime that supports international travel, safely replaces quarantine as soon as possible and enables the skies to reopen at scale."

When will we be able to use one?

Asked about the potential for a Covid vaccination passport, Professor Ivan Perry of University College Cork recently told the Irish Independent: “I could see it happening at some point in the future.”

Proof of yellow fever vaccination is already essential for travel to some parts of the world, he pointed out - while also noting that various hurdles have yet to be crossed, including licensing of vaccines and reassurances about safety and how they will work.

Use of a health passport app for proof of your own vaccination might not happen soon as you think, in other words.

Vaccinations for lower-risk individuals are not expected to begin until spring, though Tufts epidemiologist Doron calls the prospect of a vaccine before next summer "optimistic".

Until then, she said, we may need to wait to travel.

- Additional reporting by Pól Ó Conghaile

© Washington Post


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