It’s been a little more than two months since the news that we have all been waiting for became a reality: the first COVID-19 vaccines were ready to be rolled out.
The World Health Organization (WHO) started to work on the COVID-19 vaccine research and development in February 2020 after cases of the new virus started to multiply at an alarming rate. Effective vaccines usually take years to develop. What we’ve seen with the development of multiple vaccines in the last year is unprecedented.
Bloomberg reports that, as of January 2021, more than 42.2 million doses in 51 countries have been administered. The latest rate was 2.43 million doses on average per day.
However large that number may seem, it is still nowhere close to reaching the global population of 7.8 billion. Many countries have yet to be given their first supply of the vaccine and have experienced unequal access. Delivering billions of vaccines globally has proven to be one of the most significant logistical operations of our time.
Yet, even as the vaccines are being distributed, the pandemic is not slowing down around the world. More contagious strains of COVID-19 are popping up and most health organizations and governing bodies are still advising the public to not travel unnecessarily. This is especially true for overseas travel.
Journalists and travel experts have predicted that travel could start picking up again this summer or towards the end of the year based on the amount of people that have been vaccinated. The concept of herd immunity could very well be the answer at some stage, and many are wondering if they should plan or book a trip as they are eager to return to “normal” life.
The way the next six-plus months will play out is still quite dependent on how successful or widespread vaccination programs are and how well people continue to follow recommended guidelines like social distancing, face masks, and staying home when necessary.
For travellers looking to travel outside of their country, they must first consider many different factors such as the restrictions in place, what flights are available, and testing requirements at their destination. Since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, individuals are looking to the future and wondering what will be mandatory for travelling in the months to come. Experts have discussed the concept of requiring a “vaccine passport” (sometimes also referred to as the similar but different immunity passport), or a digitized way to track, store, and review medical documents that would allow travellers to show immunization records when entering countries or moving between states in the US.
One of the biggest challenges with vaccine passports is that there are various vaccines available on the market. Some of these may vary from country to country and we may not have adequate data showing the effectiveness of one vaccine versus another for quite some time. Privacy concerns are another hot topic, especially when it comes to sharing personal health information. Furthermore, each vaccine passport that has so far been proposed works differently and what we need is consistency and defined standards if it is going to be an international initiative. The Commons Project Foundation along with the World Economic Forum has created one candidate for COVID-19 vaccine passports called “CommonPass”. CommonPass’ mobile app has a trial with United Airlines and has partnered with JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic. The Vaccine Credential Initiative, a coalition of big tech firms like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Oracle, are building off of what’s already in place with CommonPass and are developing tech standards to let people access their immunization records and verify whether they’ve had their vaccine.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has created the IATA Travel Pass, a digital health pass that will support the safe reopening of borders. The IATA travel pass will allow authorized labs and test centers to securely share test and vaccination certificates with passengers. Those test or vaccination certificates will be stored on the traveller’s phone and the app will generate a QR code to share relevant information with authorities at border crossings.
This concept is not as new as the virus that it is currently trying to curtail. Vaccine passports or the aptly named “yellow cards” have been used for a long time – almost for a century. An example of this is yellow fever, which is a disease caused by a virus that is spread through mosquito bites. After getting vaccinated for yellow fever, the individual receives a signed and stamped “yellow card,” known as an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (or ICVP). Some countries require all travellers to show proof of yellow fever vaccination before they can enter the country.
One question to leave you with, are vaccine passports ethical? Making them mandatory when vaccines are being hoarded by major developed countries – poorer economies won’t receive widespread vaccination coverage before 2023, if at all – is a very complicated issue. There are also only certain demographics that are being vaccinated to start like the vulnerable and high-risk groups, while the younger generations wait their turn. Then, you have immunocompromised individuals who cannot be vaccinated and those who do not believe in vaccinations.
It is hoped that this type of proof of immunization will boost travel. Some countries could possibly provide passport type documentation to those who are vaccinated and allow them to return to some level of normalcy in their everyday life – such as visiting bars and restaurants or skipping quarantine altogether.
Regardless of whether an international vaccine passport becomes available and widely accepted, people still need to continue to rely on following the rules of social distancing and mask wearing for the foreseeable future.