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Why vaccine passports cause chaos


MANY COUNTRIES did not require passports before the First World War. But as the conflict escalated, the states set about introducing travel documents to ensure the security of their borders. As a result, after the armistice, a stunning bar was formed with different information for different nationalities, which could create chaos rather than clarity at border crossings. But a return to a world where people could move freely across borders was unimaginable.

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In 1920, the League of Nations joined. She has developed a 32-page booklet with the name of the country on the cover and such basic personal information as place and date of birth. Some governments complained – France felt that printing a booklet was too expensive compared to a single sheet – and it took them several years to adapt. But today all passports have the same format. Whether at Heathrow in Britain or at Moshoeshoe I International in Lesotho, officials can look at the passport and be confident enough of its bearer’s privileges.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, a similar process is underway. States rushed to create vaccine passports to stop the virus at the border – either at the door of a restaurant or gym. Often people have to prove that they were vaccinated, recently tested negative or had Covid and were cured.

This time the governments are not alone. Technology has opened the door for such companies IBM and Microsoft, industry associations such as the International Air Transport Association, and non-governmental organizations such as the World Economic Forum. Three students from the University of Applied Sciences of Upper Austria spent last summer, dragging their feet all night to build a pass that runs across the European Union. They can’t afford much marketing, but the GreenPass app has been downloaded 100,000 times.

As during the Great War, urgency prevailed in coordination. India, which has conducted more than a billion strikes, has a “CoWIN” certificate from Fr. QR code, identification information and, confusingly, a photo not of the bearer but of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. People in England can choose between Fr. QR code at the National Health Service (NHS) an application or website or a certification letter from your doctor. In America, where President Joe Biden has vowed not to create a national vaccination database, many different public and private medical passes are used.

The trouble is that these omissions are not compatible. Most look the same: a QR code on a smartphone or sheet of paper. But even scanning codes can be a problem. Different verification programs read different gaps. After the scan, the codes provide a wide variety of information depending on national or local health systems or attitudes toward privacy. Some vaccine passports, such as the CommonPass used in some parts of America, summarize raw data on vaccination status. Others, for example, have been published NHS, give only a symbol, a tick or a cross. And the rules of the game are not fixed. During an outbreak of infections this month, Israel took away a “green pass” from 2 million people who have not yet received additional injections.

The administrative, commercial and even psychological burden at airports is obvious. The number of travelers has dropped from 85% to 90%, but reaching the gate has become a more demanding obstacle course than ever. Queues increase when anxious travelers search for papers and QR codes. Officials are struggling to monitor which vaccines have been approved by government regulators and for how long, which test results are valid for which areas. According to Cornelius Koster, Virgin Atlantic’s chief customer and chief operating officer, “There’s some jungle.”

It’s time to standardize. However, developing a digital medical pass is more difficult than developing a travel document. Passports may indicate age, but vaccine passes are gateways to personal health information, potentially significant in quantity. It scares people. Even among countries with relatively high levels of vaccination, support for vaccine passports varies: from 52% in Hungary to 84% in Britain (see chart). In India, people are used to sharing their fingerprints and iris scans as part of the Aadhaar biometric system ID systems. However, many, like Debani Mazumder, head of publishing in Delhi, are worried that pharmaceutical companies and insurers will get their medical records. “I feel like a guinea pig,” Ms. Mazumder says.

Theoretically, digital technology should make it easier to check the status of vaccinations. However, because verification programs cannot recognize everyone QR codes, many verifiers accept what Edgar Whitley of the London School of Economics calls the “flash and go” approach, just by considering them. The black market is booming. Oded Vanunu from Check Point Software Technologies, a cybersecurity company, pretended to be a buyer and bought fake French vaccine certificates for 75 euros ($ 87), Russian vaccines for 9,500 rubles ($ 134) and Singaporean alternatives for 250 euros on the dark web. . and Telegram, a messaging program. These dummy strips look like a piece, but when properly scanned they are lacking.

When airline agents, employers and bar staff scan QR codes, they verify two things: confirmation that the carrier has been vaccinated or tested on Covid, and a digital signature confirming that the information is coming from a reliable issuer. The uniformity of digital medical passes will require a broad agreement on what medical information to include, as well as how to label and package it. It should be relatively easy. In August, the World Health Organization (World Health Organization) published a guide that recommends minimum data for the certificate. The name and date of birth of the bearer as well as the stamp and lot number of the pocket are considered necessary. Identifying the person who struck – the information included in some passes – is not.

It is more difficult to create a single system for verifying digital signatures of health authorities. Creating a repository of all trusted signatures is an expensive and politically difficult task. In countries with a national health service, such as the UK, there is only one issuer. But in America there are about 300 of them, including state governments, hospitals and pharmacies.

Without a reliable way to verify certificates outside, even the most advanced technologies falter. George Connolly is the CEO of OneLedger, the firm that developed OnePass, a blockchain-based vaccine passport. He says he has access to data from only about 20 jurisdictions. In this way, it forces contractors to check passes from other places by calling and emailing health authorities. Dakota Gruner, head ID2020 is a public-private partnership focused on digital development IDs, rolls his eyes. “Do you need a blockchain? No, ”she says. “Blockchain is a distraction? Yes.

Luddites have reason to feel complacent. As Albert Fox Kahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project advocacy group says, “So much money is being spent on building this really shiny metal fence around our society when the wooden gates worked fine.” Pieces of paper signed by clinicians, for example World Health OrganizationThe “yellow card” has been lacking as an immunization record for decades. They are more global, given that many people in poor countries do not have smartphones. Judging by the prices on the black market, paper passes are not much easier to forge. Forged versions of paper vaccine certificates issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cost the Telegram $ 150 apiece, which is more than some digital alternatives.


The biggest obstacle to smart vaccine passports is not technology, but geopolitics. In order for countries to agree on global standards, it would take an organization that trusts everyone, with excellence in health, technology and diplomacy. This may seem like an obvious role for World Health Organization. But, getting involved in the rivalry between America and China, the organization was overthrown on all sides because it coped with the pandemic. On digital passes World Health Organization got stuck. Although he has published extensive documents describing what vaccine passports should look like, he insists that vaccination evidence should not be required for international travel if vaccine distribution is so distorted for rich countries.

What matters is that World Health Organization refused to participate in the inspection and verification. A large staff will be needed to maintain a register of trusted signatories. It also requires political choices, such as recognizing signatures from Palestine or Afghanistan and which vaccines are good enough. The World Health Organization also some action would have to be taken if the state broke the rules. Carmen Dolea, Head of the Secretariat of International Health Regulations World Health Organization, says the task goes beyond her mandate. “There are problems with responsibility,” she adds.

However, clumsily, the world seems to be converging with several standards and technologies. For example, European Union standards for covid digital certificates are also used by Turkey and Switzerland. India was conquered by Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

The next step World Health Organization says countries should negotiate bilateral or regional agreements. Recent talks between the UK and India show how messy this can be. Britain refused to accept Indian CoWIN vaccine certificates in part because they did not specify the exact date of birth of the bearer. The New Delhi government has only included the year of birth because many poor Indians do not know the exact birthdays. Tightening travel restrictions kept families apart, and business trips were postponed for several weeks before an agreement was reached earlier this month. India has added an exact date, arguing that most people who can afford international travel know their birthdays.

Some outsiders still think they can solve bad management problems with additional technology. Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, a technology giant, and the driving force behind India’s Aadhaar system, is pinning his hopes on “adapters” that convert one type of pass to another. Creating the right adapters would be like finding a way to relieve shoppers of having to go with American Express, MasterCard and Visa cards if stores require different types of payment. But technology that creates bridges between aisles won’t solve the problem that issuers need to trust each other, and users will have to trust adapters that mess with their health data.

Perhaps from the ashes of the pandemic the world will develop a seamless digital vaccine passport that will replace the yellow card. But when Covid still kills thousands a week, the quarrels are over QR codes and digital signatures between multilateral organizations, technical groups and States are a by-product if not distracting. Vaccine passports will never contain the virus. Only vaccines will be. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than three-quarters of people in Denmark, Singapore and Qatar are fully vaccinated. Yet less than 1% of those are in Ethiopia and Uganda. Someday vaccine passports can help keep the peace. But now the world must focus on winning the war.

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All of our pandemic-related stories can be found on our website coronavirus center. You can also find trackers that show worldwide spread of vaccines, excessive deaths by country and the virus is spreading all over Europe.


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