What needs to be considered before introducing vaccine passports?
TORONTO -- When it comes to the idea of introducing COVID-19 vaccine passports, the federal government’s chief science adviser says politicians will need to first consider the efficacy of existing vaccines, the certificates’ recognition at home and abroad, fraud prevention, and their ethical distribution.
In a report released Friday, the Chief Science Advisor of Canada (CSA) and a panel of experts reviewed the scientific, ethical, social, and legal considerations and potential uses of COVID-19 passports or certificates.
As more people are vaccinated against the virus around the globe, many countries are considering the introduction of a proof-of-vaccination system that would allow for a safe return to travel and other economic activities. Other countries have already started to use them, such as Israel, where a “Green Pass” is required to gain entry to certain venues.
The European Commission, too, is proposing a “Digital Green Certificate” to allow individuals to freely travel within the European Union.
While the concept of a vaccine passport or certificate has been steadily gaining popularity as a way to fast-track the reopening of economies, the CSA’s report calls on all levels of government to take into account the concerns identified in the report before introducing such a system.
“Governments can play a role to develop effective policies and frameworks to protect the interests of all citizens before private companies implement ad hoc mandates for proof of vaccination,” the report states.
Here are some of the considerations highlighted in the report.
- Vaccine efficacy: While the CSA acknowledged that the current COVID-19 vaccines show a high level of protection against severe forms of the disease that lasts at least six to eight months, if administered according to the manufacturer’s specifications, they vary in how much protection they offer against asymptomatic infection, viral transmission and emerging variants. As a result, the report said this information will have to be considered separately for each class of vaccines.
- Duration of protection: Because COVID-19 is still a new disease, the duration of immunity following natural infection or vaccination beyond eight to 10 months is still uncertain, according to the report. This means the length of time a vaccine certificate will be valid before a new one is required will be dependent on the duration of immunity.
- Certificate alternatives: Because some individuals, including children under the age of 16 or those with medical conditions, can’t be vaccinated yet, the CSA said alternatives to vaccination certificates need to be offered for the “foreseeable future.”
- Ethical and social concerns: Due to a lack of universal access to vaccines, the CSA warned that a “haves” and “have nots” dynamic between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups could develop and lead to tension among communities. The report also said special attention needs to be paid to racialized, Indigenous, and disadvantaged communities that may distrust established medical institutions and governments due to historical harms. “The domestic use of vaccination certificates raises additional socio-ethical-legal questions that need careful consideration in order to promote both vaccine acceptance and social cohesion,” the CSA said.
- Data standardization: The CSA said the government’s framework for vaccine passports should provide guidance on data standardization within Canada and align, where possible, with international standards.
- Privacy: The report stated that the concept of vaccination certificates is premised on individuals sharing sensitive information about their health in order to travel and gain access to services and venues. In doing so, the CSA said they’re sharing health information with a third party, which could raise privacy and data storage concerns.Clarity and transparency with respect to how these data are managed, including storage and sharing, will be essential to maintain public trust and privacy rights,” the CSA said.
- Fraud prevention: The CSA said that a credible proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be needed to ensure authenticity and minimize fraud for Canadian and international certificates.“Several private sector enterprises are developing technologies and platforms to prevent counterfeiting,” according to the report.The advisory panel also warned of the potential for racial profiling and harassment when determining certificate authenticity. “Some groups or communities who have suffered historic biases and profiling may face increased scrutiny. Clearly defining in law the contexts in which vaccination certificates must be presented could avoid vaccination certificates becoming a predicate for harassing racialized populations.”
In conclusion, the CSA said COVID-19 vaccination certificates present more complexities when compared to other vaccine certificates, such as yellow fever, due to the fact there are multiple available vaccines with varying degrees of efficacy against different variants of the virus.
“The use of COVID-19 vaccination certificates to access crowded venues is predicated on the effectiveness of the different vaccines to mitigate the risk of importing or spreading SARS-CoV-2 and its emerging variants,” the report stated. “The use of these certificates for non-medical purposes also raises socio-ethical-legal questions that merit careful consideration.”