Don’t rush the plan for vaccination passports

AS it would take time for nations to reach herd immunity, mechanisms to help reopen the economy and international borders, such as vaccination passports, have been met with increased enthusiasm.

However, immunological uncertainties and social-ethical concerns related to implementation as well as operational challenges in global standardisations have to be addressed in order for such passports to be effective.

Firstly, there are still chances for some vaccinated individuals to not be successfully immunised. And for those who gained immunity, we don’t know yet how long it would last.

Furthermore, even if they successfully retain immunity, they may still transmit the virus to others. Although there appears to be growing evidence that vaccination reduces infectivity, the ability to completely stop transmission is still inconclusive. In this case, vaccination passport holders may still pose a spreading risk, especially to non-vaccinated groups.

On top of this, holders of vaccine passports may still be vulnerable to infection and severe symptoms from emerging Covid-19 strains.

As it stands right now, a vaccination passport is merely proof of being vaccinated.

There are also social, legal and ethical dimensions to be considered. Depending on how the proposed vaccination passport would be used and enforced, be it for domestic purposes or international travel, it could present a discriminatory system for people who are medically unfit to receive vaccines and those with other potential medical conditions that have not been sufficiently elucidated through clinical trials. It could also discriminate against people who are currently not recommended as vaccine recipients, such as children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

The issue could be further complicated if these passports are linked to personal data and digital ID. According to Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba, the passport could be in a digital form displayed in the MySejahtera app or a physical form that could be accepted by other nations.

Perhaps the authorities should consider a “self-sovereign” ID whereby personal data are both owned and controlled by the individual.

Given that vaccination passports could be used for international travel, there could be a future scenario where they would be linked to a standardised form of global digital ID such as the one developed by the ID2020 Alliance.

Airline industry support for vaccination passports can be observed through a travel pass being developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which was reported to be in favour of World Health Organisation efforts to build global standards of digital vaccine records. However, an interim position paper by WHO related to this matter dated Feb 5 states that “national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission” and “WHO also recommends that people who are vaccinated should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures.”

Thus, it would appear that health concerns are still at odds with enthusiasm from certain economic sectors to quickly push for vaccination passports. We have to ensure that our desire for normalcy does not come at the expense of public health. Rushing this may lead to failing both public health needs as well as the economic sectors that desperately depend on its successful adoption and implementation.

AMEEN KAMAL , Head of Science & Technology EMIR Research

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