INTERACTIVE: Vaccine passports – the what, how, why and why not

PETALING JAYA: Countries around the world are exploring ways to show proof of an individual's Covid-19 immunity in order to allow travel and other easing of social restrictions.

Several countries have initiated travel passports, which are Covid-19 vaccine certificates or any physical or digital document that would prove you've received both doses (or one dose for certain vaccines) of any of the available Covid-19 vaccines.

In some countries, vaccine certificates can also be issued to those who have recently tested negative for Covid-19 or have built immunity against it after having been infected.

All this would allow citizens to travel among participating countries or be granted exemptions to certain Covid-19 restrictions in their own country.

A recent survey by market research firm Ipsos shows that more than three-quarters of adults surveyed (78%) across 28 countries agree that Covid-19 vaccine passports should be required of travellers entering their country.

In comparison to the size of the majority in other countries polled, Malaysians were largely more supportive of having vaccine passports or similar health certificates in order to allow travellers to enter the country (92%).

The survey was conducted from March 26 to April 9 with adults from the age of 16 to 75 in 28 countries.

The findings show that Malaysians were also highly optimistic that vaccine passports will be widely used by the end of the year.

"They strongly believe that this will make travel and large events safe.

"Japan, host country of 2021 Olympics, and the United States, which has rolled out a vaccination programme efficiently, are not as optimistic as Malaysia," Ipsos said in a statement.

Its managing director Arun Menon noted that countries across the world are progressing through their vaccination phases, but some are still facing larger surges or second or third waves of the pandemic.

"The Malaysian public widely supports the requirement of vaccine certificates to enter the country and access large venues.

"As we cross a year of living with Covid-19, the Malaysian public is looking for ways in which they can get back to normal, even if that requires carrying or mandating vaccine passports or similar health certificates," he said.

Travel industry players are also hopeful that travel passports will help revive their battered industry.

Travel passports or proof of vaccination can be in the form of a physical card, a piece of paper with a QR code, or most often, a mobile app.

However, there is still no clear universal standard for vaccine certificates for all countries.

The World Health Organisation has also outlined considerations regarding immunity passports due to the shortage of or unequal access to vaccines in many countries.

Health experts in Malaysia advise caution on introducing travel passports too soon amid concerns of new Covid-19 variants emerging, vaccine effectiveness and the feasibility as well as fairness of establishing such a system.

Despite that, many countries have already started initiating travel bubbles and vaccine passports among other selected countries.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised against travelling to certain parts of the world, and the US State Department's travel advisory outlines the level of Covid-19 risks in countries based on the spread of the Covid-19 virus and number of cases.

Only 30 destinations in the world are classified under Level 1 in the travel advisory, which indicates a low risk of Covid-19. These include countries like Brunei, China, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and Laos.

CDC guidelines also noted that once fully vaccinated – defined as two weeks after taking the final dose – it is safe to meet indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing masks or keeping a distance.

Some countries have also used vaccine certificates to return to some measure of normalcy with regard to social activities, such as allowing those with Covid-19 immunity to access mass gatherings, indoor venues and events -- such as stadiums, swimming pools, restaurants, gyms, theatres, concerts, hotels and also pilgrimage sites.

However, the CDC guidelines advised those going to medium and large gatherings to take precautions by practising physical distancing and wearing a mask regardless of attendees' vaccination status.

The Malaysian government suggested in early April that individuals who have completed two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine may be allowed to travel interstate or even abroad, as well as be exempted from certain Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs).

To date, no official decision has been made.

The country is still in negotiations with international parties including Asean countries and the European Union on the need for a mutually recognised vaccine passport to resume travel among the partner states.

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