China embraces coronavirus vaccine passports for overseas travel, but other countries foresee concerns



China’s Government has begun rolling out a digital vaccine passport to tens of millions of residents who have received their COVID-19 shots, while efforts for similar schemes in the US and Europe stall due to ethics debates about inequality and privacy.

China unveiled a vaccine passport this month that could be accessed through WeChat — an app almost everyone in China has, but few people use abroad.

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, the app would allow people both in China and overseas to verify the certificate by scanning a QR code, potentially freeing up the movement of the 52 million people in China vaccinated so far.

China’s version of a digital certificate appears to be for international travel rather than domestic movement and talks are already underway with some other countries about recognising it.

Three people recently vaccinated in Beijing told the ABC they have not needed to use it yet.

“I’m not even thinking about going overseas unless the global pandemic situation vastly improves,” Beijing resident Huang Bin told the ABC.

Chinese provinces already have their own widely-used health tracking programs within WeChat that can store vaccine information

A health worker in full PPE gear talks to a group of people holding their phones
China has long used a smartphone health app built within WeChat to grant people access to public spaces, transport and apartment buildings.(AP: Mark Schiefelbein)

It is these apps, rather than the digital passport, that are used to restrict domestic travel if people have been in outbreak areas.

But China is not alone in seeing vaccine passports as the best way to reopen the world.

The tourism industry wants vaccine passports

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing its own ‘vaccine passport’ through an app, which it hopes could be recognised at airports across the world.


But there are still uncertainties about how to verify inoculation data given all the different vaccines, labs and medical providers across multiple countries.

Qantas recently trialled the use of a Swiss app called Commonpass, which has backing from the World Economic Forum and works in a similar way to IATA’s app.

So far it is mainly being used to show results of recent COVID-19 tests, but aims to incorporate vaccine certification too.

Within the US, there are also private efforts, such as an attempt by IBM to use blockchain technology to give organisations a way to verify vaccinated people by uploading records to an app.

The company promises to keep the data secure.

Ethical and privacy concerns dominate passport debate

Like China, some other governments are rolling out their own digital verification pass, such as Israel, which has been the leading country per capita on vaccine distribution.

In February, the Israeli Government introduced the digital ‘green pass’, a certificate of inoculation that granted people privileges that the unvaccinated aren’t allowed, such as access to bars, hotels, gyms and swimming pools.

A young woman in a face mask cheering in the stadium surrounded by other people in face masks
People in Israel who have been vaccinated receive a “green passport”, which gives them access to gyms, pools and sporting venues.(AP: Oded Balilty)

But in Britain and the US — two countries that have been aggressively rolling out vaccines — neither government has developed its own app.

And even adding vaccine information to the existing NHS app in the UK has been stalled by 200,000 people signing a petition against it, forcing MPs to debate it.

Those opposed to a digital certificate believe it will “create a two-tier society where some people can access support and freedoms, while others are shut out — with the most marginalised among us hardest hit”, according to the BBC.

In the US, President Joe Biden has moved slowly since signing an executive order in January to investigate ways to digitise and share vaccine information.

Privacy concerns appear to be sapping the administration’s enthusiasm, with a spokeswoman recently dodging calls by the travel industry for government leadership on the issue.

“Right now, our focus, as the US government, is on getting more people vaccinated,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

“And we’ll think about how people can demonstrate they are vaccinated as we get more people vaccinated. But that’s where we’re putting our energy and resources toward.”

Could overseas tourism become a luxury for the vaccinated?

Simon Longstaff, a philosopher from Sydney-based NGO The Ethics Centre, said there is a practical debate and a theoretical one when it comes to vaccine passports.

A woman in a blue cap and face mask holds a needle to someone's shoulder
Health experts say the problem with vaccine passports is that being fully vaccinated does not necessarily mean you can’t pass on the virus to others.(AP: Mark Schiefelbein)

“The current scientific knowledge says the vaccines don’t stop you transmitting the virus, but rather they stop you getting ill,” he said.

“So if it doesn’t stop transmission, whether you are vaccinated or not is largely irrelevant when it comes to things like airline travel.”

A preliminary study by Israeli researchers suggests the Pfizer vaccine does reduce a person’s ability to pass the infection on, but so far no injection exists which totally eliminates the risk of transmission.

“The theoretical question is whether we get a vaccine that actually does prevent transmission, and then the choice is not necessarily between whether to carry a person on an aircraft if they are vaccinated or not, but rather what conditions they are subjected to,” Dr Longstaff said.

Dr Longstaff points to the way airlines used to force smokers to travel in separate cabins, saying it is conceivable that airlines could devote cabins with more social distancing to people who had not been vaccinated — but at an increased cost.

“Then it would become a question of whether being vaccinated is a genuine choice,” he said.

A woman in a bright blue suit with matching face scarf standing next to a trolley stacked with suitcases
Ethicists say vaccine passports could create a system of unequal access to international travel.(Reuters: Henry Nicholls )

People living in low and middle-income countries may have to wait longer for the vaccine, according to Dr Bridget Pratt from the Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne.

“I think a ‘two-tier’ idea of rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people is a concern both within countries and between countries,” she said.

“And those two tiers will likely reinforce existing inequalities because the people who lack access to the vaccine are likely to already be socially marginalised.”

That could create a situation where people in richer nations get to enjoy international travel for years before the rest of the world.

“That can have significant impacts for wellbeing in terms of family and social relationships, work, and just the enjoyment of getting a holiday,” she said.

Given Australia’s relatively slow vaccine rollout compared to countries like Israel and the US, it is a debate that still has room to play out.

But when international travel does resume, Dr Longstaff hopes any use of digital vaccine certificates comes with conditions.

“You’d would want to hope they legislate it to say the use of digital vaccine certificates for travel is for [a certain] number of years, it’s subject to a mandatory review and it requires a vote in parliament to extend it,” he said.


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