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Talking Trade blog

Facilitating trade: Vaccine passports?

Published 13 April 2021

As vaccine roll-outs mature across high-income countries, the vaccine passport has often been touted as key to restarting economies and enabling travel across borders. Governments, including EU and UK, have publicly announced their plans to issue such a passport – and Israel is already using one.

A vaccine passport is a certificate of vaccination with verifiable data both on the identity of the holder and on their vaccination status. These certificates, which are currently digital documents to ensure ease of use and verifiability, are widely acknowledged as essential for the resumption of quarantine-free international travel.

International tourism is key to many economies around the world, accounting for over 10 percent of world GDP in 2019. But international travel is not just about beach vacations in Aruba. Business travel is essential to restarting the world economy. Facilitating travel for work is a clear reason to embrace the vaccine passport.

Take, for example, the opening of a manufacturing plant. Such an endeavor requires highly skilled experts who may not necessarily live in-country. The type of engineering expertise needed to construct and kick off the operations of a high-tech factory is not always needed day-to-day – meaning in the pre-COVID world, the firm or industry relied on hassle-free international and inter-regional travel, allowing experts to work on-site for short periods. Now, a similar trip might require the traveler to undergo two two-week hotel room quarantines on either end of the trip, making business travel much more expensive and inconvenient.

In a 2020 paper, Harvard researchers set out to determine how much business travel benefits the global economy. Using their model, the researchers determined that the effects of reduced business travel are severe. If business travelers were forbidden from leaving South Korea alone, world GDP would fall by an estimated 0.95 percent – equivalent to nearly US$770 billion a year. 

In 2020, business travel fell by an estimated 54 percent, and expected to fall even further through 2021. To put it simply – the consequences of reduced business travel are huge.  

With governments nowhere near lifting entry restrictions and airlines not particularly keen on letting contagious passengers fly, the vaccine passport is an obvious solution to ease restrictions on international travel.

To date, no country has made vaccine passports mandatory for entry – but this is likely coming soon.  Already, governments and airlines have been using digital platforms to verify travelers’ COVID status. Platforms like the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Travel Pass and CLEAR’s Health Pass have been used as a means to verify the negative tests required to board flights. Platforms, anticipating vaccination requirements for future travel, are quickly building vaccine status certification into their apps.

Countries closer to fully vaccinated populations are likely to be the first to implement vaccine passport schemes. Vaccine passports will be available, and likely required for travel by travel companies or by governments, across the US, UK, and EU over the next few months.

Those governments that require vaccine passports will have many platforms to choose from – there are a number of programs under development. These programs range from high-level collaborations between governments and international organizations to platforms developed by individual private sector actors. Of these initiatives, a handful are currently being used in real-world trials. These include the previously mentioned IATA Travel Pass and the CLEAR Health Pass, as well as the joint WHO-Estonia VaccineGuard, and CommonPass funded by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Rockefeller Foundation.

In developing countries, the rollout of vaccine certification is likely to be as difficult as vaccination itself. An added complication will be found where few have access to the smartphones necessary for the platforms under development. In these places, vaccine certifications may rely on biometric data like seen in the digital ID schemes rolled out in places like India and Cambodia.

Critics of vaccine certification schemes are quick to point out that inequalities will inevitably worsen as a result. Already, the vaccination gap between rich and poor countries is apparent. While countries like the US and UK expect to vaccinate every eligible person over the coming months, the poorest countries in the world may not be able to vaccinate meaningful numbers of their populations for years.

The rise of vaccine passports threatens to create a two-tiered world, where the unvaccinated are subject to both international and domestic restrictions on their movement and activities.

With a number of competing vaccine passport platforms in development, it is also likely that we will see a patchwork of apps covering different airlines and borders. Without common standards, governments will need to work out how to enable mutual recognition across borders. This may result in limited bilateral travel agreements, with travel opening up slowly on a case-by-case basis. Though the WHO has drafted principles for a digital vaccination certification mechanism, there is no indication of any consensus as to what certification platforms might be used.

Though vaccine passports stand to allow resumed leisure and business travel, both of which have huge economic benefits, a great deal of uncertainty remains. With that uncertainty comes the risk that vaccine certification schemes will mean that those living in developing countries, where vaccination programs expect to take years, will be unable to fully participate in the global economy.

Travelers hoping to arrive from countries that are seen as having an insufficient handle on the pandemic, with inadequate vaccines or testing in place, challenges from continuing mutations of the virus, or issues with specific types of vaccines in use that have been judged to be unacceptable, will also face new discrimination and possible rejected entry. The risks of disruption or being stranded that have been associated with travel for much of the past year, even for persons who have a certificate or vaccine passport in hand, will remain high.

Companies will struggle with determining the appropriate levels of risk associated with the movement of staff. The reopening of travel for conducting business will likely be, as with most things associated with this pandemic, more disruptive for a much longer period than currently anticipated. Firms and individuals that expect a vaccine passport or certificate to solve all challenges are likely to be disappointed.

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Nick Agnew

Nick Agnew is a Research Analyst at FTI Delta. He was previously a Research Consultant at the Asian Trade Centre.

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