The International Debate Over Vaccine Passports Is Intensifying

Israel has already rolled them out, and the European Union is poised to follow suit

Photo: Lukas via Unsplash

In recent weeks, Israel has started rolling out two types of digital certificates related to Covid-19 immunity. One is the “immunity certificate,” which is a confirmation that the holder received two vaccine doses and is thus immune. This confirmation will allow people to lead an almost regular, pre-Covid-19 way of life.

A person with an Israeli immunity certificate can eat in a restaurant, work out at the gym, or see a play in the theater. They would still need to wear a mask while doing so, but they are no longer required to self-isolate if they make contact with a person who’s ill.

The second type of certificate is the “green passport,” which is more of a “wishful thinking” type of initiative. It is issued to people who were vaccinated with two doses and is intended to allow international travel to countries that limit entry only to people who are immune. The Israeli government is hoping to secure agreements with other countries and allow travel with the green passport. It hasn’t been able to do that yet. Many nations around the world, like the United States and the United Kingdom, are still debating, but the European Union said this week that it would propose its own vaccine passport system.

The idea of a vaccine passport is highly controversial. In addition to creating an opportunity for a black market for counterfeits, they pose scientific, technological, and ethical difficulties.

The black market

Already, there’s an Israeli Telegram group called “Green Passport Immunity certificate.” It has over 41,000 members and one specific aim: The group’s admins are selling fake green passports or immunity certificates to anyone in need.

“Demand is very high,” one message said. “Many are interested in buying. There’s no pressure, we have a hard-working staff and many happy customers. You’ll get an immunity certificate even if you weren’t vaccinated.” According to the updated price list, you can get one passport for 1,000 NIS ($300 USD), two passports for 1,400 NIS ($420), six passports for 2,500 NIS ($750), and so on.

There are many other similar groups. It’s very easy to reach them. In most cases, you won’t be able to spot the difference between fake and original certificates.

An Israeli Telegram group for selling fake “immunity passports.” Photo courtesy of the author.

Scientific questions

Although encouraging data keeps piling up on the vaccines’ efficacy, there are still many questions left unanswered.

Studies show that the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna might be less effective against some of the new Covid-19 variants. There’s also a possibility that the vaccines are less effective with those suffering from obesity. Researchers still don’t know how long the immunity lasts. “At the most basic level, we are still gathering data on exactly how effective each vaccine is in preventing infection and transmission and on how long the immunity will last,” Chris Dye, a professor of epidemiology at Oxford University, recently explained in a report for the U.K.’s Royal Society.

Issuing a green passport and allowing people to travel internationally based on the assumption that they’re fully immune could prove scientifically flawed and end up helping to spread the disease.

Technological questions

Throughout the pandemic, many countries had their own form of a contact-tracing app. Many of those apps worked poorly. The Australian app had issues, the American app had issues, the Saudi app had major issues. Having a working, internationally accepted app for vaccine passports could be, technologically, a much harder task than it sounds.

There are also privacy concerns. Contact-tracing apps secure valuable personal data, and a vaccine passport app would likely do the same. This data could be breached or even hacked. Last July, for example, the British “track and trace” app was blamed for breaking privacy laws. Green passport apps raise questions about who will safeguard personal and confidential information and how this information will be used.

Ethical questions

Vaccines are still limited. Not everyone who is willing to receive the vaccine is able to do so. Around the world, 94% of the countries that are already vaccinating their citizens are ranked in the high-income or high middle-income category. Many countries have few doses or none at all.

There are also many groups of people who cannot receive the vaccines, including those with a history of a serious allergic reaction and children under 16. In addition, there is a large group of people who are concerned and hesitant about vaccination. I’m not talking about medical conspiracists and anti-vax advocates. Many people have valid reasons for vaccine hesitancy: The Covid-19 vaccines are new, and they have been approved on an emergency basis. Some communities suffered years of medical racism, and barriers of mistrust in the system grew. A Harvard CAPS–Harris poll released March 3 showed that 41% of those asked said they are not willing to get the vaccine.

Is it ethical to restrict the freedom of those who can not, or currently will not, receive the vaccine while allowing those who do to return to their normal life? Many believe the answer is no. Over 250,000 people have signed a petition asking the British government to not introduce a green passport, as they say it will “be used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a vaccine, which would be unacceptable.”

Opponents of green passports argue that they could be used to force people to receive unwanted medical treatment. It’s a thin line to cross.

All of these issues recently caused the World Health Organization (WHO) to advise against the use of green passports for international travel. The Royal Society published a thorough report reviewing all the obstacles in issuing an internationally standardized passport, stressing how complicated and risky doing so would be.

But despite the questions and warnings, it seems like many countries are moving forward with the idea.

In Europe, the initiative took off at the end of February, with pressure coming from Greece, Spain, and Austria. These heavily tourist-based economies see green passports as a way to revive their dying tourism industry ahead of a second Covid-era summer.

Denmark soon joined and declared its intention to issue a green passport both for the purpose of opening up its economy and restarting international travel. “It will be the extra passport that you will be able to have on your mobile phone that documents that you have been vaccinated,” Danish Finance Minister Morten Boedskov said in a press conference.

The idea started to grow on others — even those who were reluctant at first. In the United Kingdom, the prime minister first ruled the idea out, but later said it was being considered. In Germany, a recent poll showed 60% of the citizens were in favor of a green passport. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was skeptical at first, eventually championed the idea.

And now, the European Union has agreed to introduce a digital green pass to allow people who are vaccinated to travel more freely by this summer.

The E.U. is now working on the legal and technological frameworks for these passports with the hope that what will start as a European system can later be turned into a global-scale operation with the help of the WHO.

The advantages are clear. Green passports could help reopen economies quickly and safely. They will help motivate people to get vaccinated. They could, for the foreseeable future, organize a way for humanity to get back to the world we knew before.

Still, many claim that those who were vaccinated and are immune deserve their freedom back. Others claim that those who are unable, or unwilling to get vaccinated, shouldn’t have their freedom taken away.

Above all, many questions still remain about the virus and vaccines. But after more than a year of a crippling pandemic, it feels as though many countries have lost their patience waiting for definite answers and are ready to take the risk and act.

I love writing about what I love. Journalist. Always curious. Israeli born, London based. Father, Husband, and a dog person.