What’s Up With Immunity Passports? Here’s What We Know. | The Expedition
Vaccine passports
Vaccine passports

What’s Up With Immunity Passports? Here’s What We Know.

Lie-flat seats and fancy noise-canceling headphones, move over. There’s a new must-have travel accessory on the horizon, so essential that it might be a condition of boarding a plane or cruise ship, or even checking into a resort. 

A vaccination passport, sometimes called an immunity passport, is digital proof that the “passport” holder has either received the Covid-19 vaccine or otherwise presented verifiable evidence of their immunity to the virus. In one form or another, this digital passport proving your negative Covid status may be a requisite for future travel—though at the moment, there are more questions than answers about vaccination passport rollout. How will it work? Who will issue them? How do you get one? Here’s what we know so far. 

What is a vaccination passport?

“Passport” may be a misnomer, since a vaccination passport isn’t a booklet or even a chip card.

Vaccination passports will come in the form of digital apps for Apple or Android platforms, which store your Covid-related health info. Once you receive the complete Covid-19 vaccine (currently a two-shot process), the administering health agency provides you with a link to a digital copy of your vaccination. Through the vaccination passport app of your choosing, you can upload or grant access to your vaccination record. The app will then verify that the record is legitimate and, theoretically, you’ll be clear to enter a foreign country, board a plane or ship, or cross any other threshold, literal or figurative, that requires a vaccination passport. 

The term vaccination passport is sometimes used interchangeably with the term
“immunity passport,” but they’re not necessarily the same thing. An immunity passport, proposed by some governments as a greenlight for cross-border travel, is essentially just digital or paper verification of a positive SARS-CoV-2 antibodies test. The test detects whether you’re a carrier of Covid-19 antibodies—which would mean that you’ve had Covid, whether you were knowingly sick or were asymptomatic. 

While some travel providers may permit travel with a positive antibodies test, or even just a negative Covid test, the growing consensus is that these are not sufficient barriers to the spread of the virus. Antibody tests can give false positive readings, and a three-day-old negative Covid test doesn’t mean much if you contract Covid in your taxi ride to the airport. 

Will vaccination passports be required?

Yes. Probably. Maybe? Though it’s too soon to say definitively, increasingly it looks like some airlines, cruise lines and countries may require vaccination passports as a condition of travel. Saga, a UK-based boutique cruise line, recently announced that they will require passengers to have a complete Covid vaccination at least 15 days out from sailing. Their guidelines don’t mention vaccination passports but rather a “vaccination document and/or evidence” that passengers must present at the time of boarding. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival and other major cruise lines haven’t announced their requirements, but have postponed 2021 sailing dates to May—presumably to allow time for vaccines to become more widespread and to figure out just how in the heck to handle Covid vaccine requirements. 

Most airlines also appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to vaccine requirements. So far, only Qantas has clearly stated that a Covid vaccination will be a prerequisite for international travel. Other airlines are expected to follow suit but are waiting to announce for a number of reasons, including the lack of widespread vaccine availability in the U.S. and elsewhere. They’re also awaiting clear government guidelines concerning international travel. If the U.S. government, for example, doesn’t require a Covid vaccine as a condition of entry, then airlines might be less inclined to require it as a condition of travel. 

Who issues vaccination passports?

The other looming question on the travel landscape is who will be responsible for giving out vaccination passports? 

Currently, several companies or agencies are developing passport apps. The IATA (International Air Transport Association) is set to debut in March the Travel Pass, which it hopes will be the industry-standard for vaccination passports. But IATA has a lot of company. The CommonPass App, in which the World Economic Forum is a major partner, aims to offer, per its website, “a trusted, globally-interoperable platform for people to document their COVID-19 status (health declarations / PCR tests / vaccinations) to satisfy country entry requirements.” And there are dozens more apps in progress—just a quick search in the Apple or Google app stores reveals a long list of vaccination passport apps, some of which are surely of dubious credibility.

Nick Lambe is a principal with TravelSafe Systems, which supplies COVID testing systems and a digital test result apps and platform. The situation with current vaccine or test verification systems, he says, “is so complex, and there are so many options.” Some apps will work in tandem with testing agencies and send results straight to an app, some entire governments are working with outdated technology, and some apps require scanned images of IDs, test results and vaccination certificates—rife with opportunity for forgery. Some countries, Lambe says, aren’t up to speed with digital technology and don’t have the ability to scan a digital app at points of entry. 

Add to those worries the whole issue of Covid testing and vaccine efficacy. We already know that test results can be false negative or positive, or negative one day and positive the next. Vaccines may have different levels of effectiveness depending on where the it is being produced and administered. 

And in case you need one more complicating factor—some poorer countries may not be able to start vaccinating their citizens until well into 2022, at best. Will those people be barred from global travel, and will the vaccinated be able to travel to these unvaccinated destinations?  We just don’t know. 

How to get the right vaccination passport

Vaccination passport apps are in their nascent stages. Lambe predicts that the scores of companies developing competing technologies will likely consolidate in the coming months so that only a handful remain—and hopefully these systems will “talk” to one another and be widely accepted worldwide. 

If you decide to obtain vaccination passports for yourself and your family, remember that vaccines are currently only for people 16 and older. But kids under 16 may still be required to show a negative Covid test in order to travel. 

When selecting a vaccination passport app, Lambe says there are a few things to look for:

  • Privacy. The app should state specifically how it’s protecting your personal data.
  • Credibility. Look for apps that are either recommended by or integrated with governments and recognized health institutions.
  • Function. Study how the app works. If you’re merely required to download a photo and paper proof of vaccination, it’s probably not any better than providing paper copies. 
  • Avoid blockchain. Lambe, a cybersecurity expert, cites risks to data privacy with blockchain technology under current legislation, especially GDPR, the EU data protection law.
  • Look at the parent company. Is the app provided by a medical services or travel industry organization, or by a company that makes video games? 

Our take is that a viable vaccination passport is still a ways off, especially in light of slow vaccine rollouts and mixed messages from governments and travel providers. While everyone looks forward to a future where we’re free to travel at ease, it’s going to take a lot more than an app to ensure compliance, safety, and the liberty to travel like it’s 2019.


Elizabeth Heath is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Telegraph, Frommers.com, Thrillist, Frommer’s Travel Guides, and many other publications.

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