As vaccinated individuals resume travel and other public activities following the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries, including the United States, are considering requiring immunity “passports” for would-be visitors . These documents, which would likely be digital, would allow vaccinated or otherwise immune people to move more freely across borders. Indeed, countries like Romania have already abolished quarantine and testing requirements for incoming vaccinated travelers . However, critics have raised three main areas of ethical concern regarding these passports: patient privacy, fair international standards for passport eligibility, and access. The last one is particularly notable given the expensive nature of the digital devices on which such a document would be distributed and displayed.  .
A digital passport is considered preferable to a paper one for a number of reasons, not least the low likelihood of the document becoming lost or damaged. Moreover, digital passports are seen as a safeguard against fraud, preventing non-immunized individuals from falsifying their status and endangering others . However, the digital format has also raised concerns about data access and privacy. For instance, the app or platform used must be carefully designed, so that when third parties—such as airlines and border control officers—access it, the information of passport holders remains safe . Some researchers have suggested using blockchain technology to keep passports safe from fraud and unwanted third-party data access .
Country-based differences in the approach to vaccination are also likely to create friction. As of March 2021, over 200 vaccines were in development worldwide, with 9 approved by various countries. In many cases, a vaccine common in one country is unapproved in others. For instance, Russia has approved the vaccine known as Sputnik V, while the U.S. has not . This suggests that governments globally must develop a system for evaluating other countries’ approved vaccines, in order to reach a consensus on which travelers may receive a passport. Furthermore, countries may vary in terms of how long following vaccination individuals will be considered officially immune. Some governments will likely require follow-up “booster” shots sooner than others. To make matters more complicated, wealthy countries are likely to be able to adhere to stricter standards on this front simply because of their greater ability to purchase doses .
These instances of international inequality regarding vaccine access are also relevant to the broader issue of equal access in terms of immunity passports. Digital passports would be housed in costly digital devices like smartphones, and passport holders would need to have internet access. Access to the internet is unequal globally and strongly correlated with regional and national wealth. Approximately 87% of people in developed countries report using the internet, while only 19% of people in less developed countries report doing so . Antibody tests are also expensive. This is why many governments support vaccine passports over immunity passports, which are awarded to those who have recovered from the virus .
In order to make digital “passports” a viable route to post COVID-19 travel and socializing, three ethical areas of concern must be addressed. The first is privacy, given the large amounts of personal data that will be stored in any passport system. The second is the establishment of fair universal standards for assessing passport eligibility. The third is the potential cost to individuals obtaining a passport, especially given preexisting inequality in internet access.
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