What Can We Learn From Vaccine Passports Around the World?

A traveler tests the CommonPass digital health passport system at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan. Photo Courtesy: Yoshikazu Tsuno/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

As the pace of COVID-19 vaccination rates around the world accelerated, and countries sought ways to loosen restrictions, vaccination requirements became commonplace in a variety of public spaces and a regular feature of international travel. And with that, vaccine passports became important tools for business owners, school administrators, event planners, and even border officials to determine whether or not someone was complying with these various vaccine mandates. Vaccine passports can generally be defined as “a paper or digital document proving inoculation against COVID-19.” And studies have shown that vaccination requirements and the utilization of these passports has boosted vaccination rates in a number of countries, amongst individuals who were initially hesitant.

However, as the pandemic wears on, vaccination requirements for entering businesses and public spaces have loosened in many countries. This might be partly due to pandemic fatigue and waning support for public health measures, and also because vaccination status is proving less protective against the spread of new variants. But for international travel, these requirements have largely stayed in place, and research has shown more support for the utilization of vaccine passports for this reason than for any other. So what’s on the horizon for vaccine passports? Where do you still need one? And what are Americans supposed to do in a country that lacks a central database of vaccinated individuals?

What Are Vaccine Passports?

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The travel industry was one that was hit the hardest during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020; the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that the pandemic may be responsible for a nearly $4 trillion loss in the international tourism economy. So, it wasn’t surprising that many countries around the world were eager to reopen as soon as the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available.

As a result, several countries have helped regulate and ease travel restrictions by introducing vaccine passports. Many vaccine passports take the form of a digital smartphone app that displays a user’s proof of vaccination. These passports are now commonly required in some countries in order to participate in airline travel and other activities where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is higher.

However, the lack of standardization across countries has posed its own set of problems for countries needing to verify that passports from a foreign country meet local standards. In February of 2022 the World Health Organization announced an International Vaccine Passport initiative to tackle this issue, precisely. While details on that effort are still forthcoming, the trends that we’ve seen in vaccine passports in various countries might have something to tell us about the future of this technology.

Scotland “Switches Off” Its Passport

Until recently Scotland, like many other countries in Europe, had strict vaccine requirements to do things like go to restaurants, attend concerts, etc. At the end of March 2022, those requirements were scrapped. Initially businesses were told that they could still opt to require vaccinations individually, but a few days later when government subsidized testing was ended as well, businesses were told that vaccine mandates were no longer acceptable.

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This move is consistent with moves being made by many other European countries, who are doing away with vaccine requirements that restrict public life at a local level. Notably, Scotland “switched off” the domestic component of its passport, but hasn’t done away with the app entirely, as vaccination is still required by many countries for international travel, even within the EU.

The EU’s Digital COVID Passport Facilitates Freer Movement Among Member Nations

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The European Union (EU) introduced a digital COVID passport in July of 2021 that’s valid in all EU member countries. The certificate can also be used in several non-EU countries, such as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Citizens can either obtain physical copies of documents displaying the results of their vaccination status or download digital copies of their passports at no cost. The EU passport is available to those who have been fully vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from COVID-19 and exempts the holder from free movement restrictions throughout the EU. Some individual EU member countries have introduced their own passports as well.

In February of 2022 the EU updated its guidelines, specifying that vaccine certifications should only be valid for 270 days after your last dose This means that folks who received their last shot more than 9 months ago and have yet to be boosted should get a booster shot before trying to travel within the EU.

Israel’s “Green Pass” System Is Going Out Of Style

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Israel first enacted a “green pass” system in February of 2021. The system provided those who had recently been vaccinated or recovered from the virus with a digital certificate that allowed them to take part in various events. The pass reportedly helped increase vaccination rates and spur a decline in cases, especially among young people. Public health officials turned the green pass on and off several times over the next year, mandating it when cases were high and loosening restrictions when case counts were down.

Now with the Omicron surge infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, and causing case numbers to rise without throwing hospitals into crisis, Israel is looking to retire its green pass.

Vietnam Jumps On The Vaccine Passport Train

Vietnam began issuing vaccine passports starting in December of 2021, but rollout has been slow. As of April 2022, Vietnam announced mutual recognition of vaccine passports with 19 other countries, meaning that passport holders from those countries can now visit the several provinces that are open to international travelers. This is all part of a longer term plan to open fully to international travelers by the third quarter of 2022.

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Polarization Defines The Path Towards A US Passport

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Vaccine passport programs have been piloted by a variety of cities, with New York’s effort grabbing the attention of the news media and the nation. If vaccine passports are made mandatory within certain parts of the United States, it won’t be the result of a federal government decree.

The White House has already delegated responsibility for the issue to individual states and the private sector for a number of reasons. The first is likely the already highly politicized stance many Americans have taken over the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as concerns over privacy at the federal level. Additionally, the U.S. government doesn’t currently maintain a national immunization record database that could serve as the source for a federally issued passport.

Still, a national vaccine passport of sorts has emerged a bit more organically. SMART Health Cards have been issued by 21 states so far, and that number is growing, though it is unlikely that we’ll see universal adoption across all 50 states. In March of 2022 Georgia banned the use of vaccine passports, joining over 20 states, all led by Republican governors, have prohibited the requirement of vaccination proof of any kind. Governers Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, of Florida and Texas, respectively, have issued executive orders prohibiting the use of vaccine passports for access to private businesses.

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