International travel health certificates to show that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 are being rolled out or discussed by many governments around the world to help restart economies and cross-border travel.
However, the potential for discrimination, theft of health information or fraud is among experts' concerns.
On Monday, China officially kicked off a mini program, backed by the social media app WeChat, that enables subscribers to obtain a Chinese version of an international travel health certificate, allowing people-to-people exchanges to resume in a safe and orderly way.
While protecting personal privacy, the certificate will help achieve mutual recognition of information such as COVID-19 nucleic acid testing and vaccination.
China is willing to discuss mutual recognition of vaccination, and how it would work, with other countries, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a news conference on Sunday on the sidelines of the ongoing session of the National People's Congress, the nation's top legislature.
Iceland in late January became the first country in the 26-member Schengen Area, a passport-free zone in Europe, to issue vaccine certificates.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the 27-member European Union hope to adopt a proposal for its vaccine "passport", known as a Green Digital Certificate, at a meeting of member states on March 17.
"Exactly how it will then be used by member states in order to improve freedom of movement still needs to be defined," Eric Mamer, chief spokesman for the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, said during a virtual news conference on Monday.
The EU aims to vaccinate 70 percent of its adult population by the end of this summer, but so far less than 10 percent has been vaccinated.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has joined some tourism-dependent countries such as Spain and Greece in pushing for vaccination certificates. "Those who are vaccinated should have full freedom," he said.
Tourism provides 27 million jobs in Europe and generates about 10 percent of the EU's GDP when tourism-dependent sectors are included.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that for now, treating vaccinated travelers preferentially "isn't on the agenda, given the low vaccination coverage at this point".But she indicated openness to such certificates later this year.
The French government also was cautious, with some officials worrying about a resurgence of new cases with such certificates. Surveys have indicated that only half of French people were willing to be inoculated.
Cyprus said it will begin welcoming vaccinated visitors from the United Kingdom on May 1.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has indicated that vaccine certificates are "under consideration", but some UK government officials, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have contradicted him.
Israel, which has vaccinated more than 40 percent of its population, the highest rate in the world, has agreed to test a travel bubble with EU member states Greece and Cyprus to open the door for vaccinated travelers.
The United States government hasn't decided whether it will approve vaccine certificates for US citizens. But US President Joe Biden has issued an executive order asking multiple government agencies to "assess the feasibility" of linking coronavirus shots to international vaccination certificates and producing digital versions of them.
Biden also has said the US will have enough vaccines available for everyone in the country by May, two months ahead of his previous schedule. That could open up travel for millions of US residents.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't issued guidance on vaccine certificates and noted that there is no international standard on vaccines or documentation of a vaccination.
"Until then, all air passengers traveling to the US, regardless of vaccination or antibody status, are required to provide a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery," CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey said.
'Need to be very careful'
Mike Ryan, executive director of the Health Emergencies Programme of the World Health Organization, said on Monday that the use of certification of vaccination as a requirement for travel is not advised at the present time because vaccination is not available around the world, especially on an equitable basis. He noted that there are also people who for whatever reason cannot be vaccinated or do not wish to be vaccinated.
"So this is a very important societal discussion, that I think we need to be very careful," he said.
But Ryan praised the digital certification of vaccination itself as a positive development in public health architecture, adding that the WHO has an in-house team working on the subject.
Regarding such certification, Kate O'Brien, the WHO's director for immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said, "What we are doing is establishing the standards for those kinds of records", and establishing the technical basis "which any given app or platform would have to meet" to ensure that all those elements are in place.
Civil liberties groups have said people who don't want to get the vaccine due to religious or cultural reasons could be blocked from some aspects of daily life, while a digital-based app could penalize those who don't have a smartphone.
"I foresee vaccine passports being used as a way to further disenfranchise people," Alexis Hancock, director of engineering for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit digital rights group, told China Daily. "For example, (its) being used as a common restriction tactic on the marginalized but not as stringent for the more privileged."
世界卫生组织(World Health Organization)卫生应急计划(Health Emergencies Programme)执行主任迈克瑞安(Mike Ryan)周一表示，目前不建议将疫苗接种证书作为旅行的一项要求，因为全球各地都没有疫苗接种，尤其是在公平的基础上。他指出，也有人因为任何原因不能接种疫苗或不想接种疫苗。“所以这是一个非常重要的社会讨论，我认为我们需要非常小心，”他说。但是瑞安称赞疫苗接种的数字认证本身是公共卫生架构的积极发展，并补充说世卫组织有一个内部团队在研究这个问题。关于这种认证，世卫组织免疫、疫苗和生物制品主任凯特·奥布莱恩(Kate O'Brien)表示，“我们正在做的是为这些记录建立标准”，并建立“任何给定的应用或平台都必须满足的”技术基础，以确保所有这些要素都到位。公民自由组织表示，由于宗教或文化原因不想接种疫苗的人可能会被禁止进入日常生活的某些方面，而一个基于数字的应用程序可能会惩罚那些没有智能手机的人。“我预计疫苗护照将被用作进一步剥夺人们选举权的一种方式，”总部位于旧金山的非营利数字权利组织电子前沿基金会工程主任亚历克西斯·汉考克(Alexis Hancock)对《中国日报》表示。“例如，(它)被用作对边缘化人群的一种常见限制策略，但对特权阶层则没有那么严格。”
Risk of information leaks
Hancock said a digital vaccine "passport" with private medical data could infringe on a person's rights, especially if it will be shared digitally. "Any information shared digitally is at risk of being leaked. And without good digital privacy law internationally, this information can become easily associated with the rest of a person's data without their knowledge and informed consent."
Jane Lee, a trust and safety architect at the cybersecurity company Sift, said: "I can pretty much 100 percent guarantee that fraud is going to occur. We will have a lot of bad actors where they pretend to offer a service that will provide some sort of vaccination passport, but it's really a phishing campaign."
A coalition of health and technology companies has launched the Vaccination Credential Initiative to show proof of vaccinations. A digital pass called CommonPass is being created by The World Economic Forum, the Commons Project, the Rockefeller Foundation and 350 public and private sector leaders from 52 countries and regions. It is being tested by United Airlines.
Small-scale versions of vaccine certificates are being tested at events and among healthcare systems.
In Los Angeles County in the US, The Los Angeles Wallet pass was one of the first in the country to show digital proof of a coronavirus vaccine on a phone.
Despite the moves to develop some type of proof of vaccination against COVID-19, the WHO warned in January that it isn't known how effective the vaccines are against transmission, which could mean that those who get vaccinated could still pass the coronavirus to others. And people who have already had the virus may in the future have different vaccine requirements.
"The utility of a vaccine passport is only as good as the evidence of how long the immunity lasts," David Salisbury, an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House, told Bloomberg. "You could find yourself with a stamp in your passport that lasts longer than the antibodies in your blood."