The vaccine passport has become a matter of debate from a medical and bioethical perspective. The question of what it is and where is it currently being used, and the difference between a certificate of vaccination and a certificate of immunity, appear to be topics of great interest.

The goal is to use the vaccine passport as the route back to unrestricted travel, by digitizing paper vaccination certificates into internationally recognized passes for travel. The digital passport would function as a scannable QR (Quick Response) code with information on vaccination.

A recent article published in the US newspaper The Washington Post (March 30, 2021), entitled, Everything travelers, need to know about vaccine passports, says thatCommon Pass, created by the nonprofit Commons Project, has been in use internationally for coronavirus test results since October. The program operates on iOS and Android devices, functioning as a scannable QR code that holds a passenger’s test data or vaccine documentation [our emphasis]. The program, which is still in trial use through participating airlines and governments, is available for use only with a participating airline’s invitation code.

Seventeen free apps are currently being developed only in the US, including some vaccine passports for every day (non-travel) use, i.e. for sports, events, arts, etc.

The article continues, “An app in development by the International Air Transport Association, the IATA Travel Pass, is slated to be available for Apple users in mid-April and will be rolled out to Android users by the end of that month, according to the IATA. A Contactless Travel Pass portion of the app aims to enable passengers to create a ‘digital passport’, upload official test and vaccination certificates, verify that they are sufficient for their itinerary, and then share those certificates with airlines. The IATA app will also provide travelers with a registry of health requirements and testing/vaccination centers in their area.”

The aforementioned Common Pass has been used since December on several flights out of New York, Boston, London and Hong Kong with the airlines United, JetBlue, Swiss International and Virgin Atlantic. More destinations are allowing entry to travelers with this passport (read HERE).

The UE has several initiatives in development, but steps are needed “to get shots into arms”.

An article published on the BBC News (March 26, 2021) website reports on the European vaccine passport project.

EU countries have called for legal and technical work to go ahead “as a matter of urgency”. The current plan is for the certificate to be in place for the summer to allow more tourism travel.

The certificate that will be required in EU countries — either digital or on paper — will enable “anyone vaccinated against Covid, or who has tested negative or recently recovered from the virus, to travel across all 27 member states.”

At this point, a crucial question arises; could vaccinated people transmit the coronavirus? In this respect, a scientific study on the Pfizer vaccine offers encouraging news, but further studies on other vaccines are needed.

However, generalizing the use of this “passport” raises some ethical issues that are worth considering:

  1. Given that, at present, not all citizens of a country have the possibility of accessing the vaccine, if the “vaccine passport” can only be obtained by those vaccinated, it could pose a problem of “distributive justice” among the people of that country; it would favor those who, by chance or for any other reason outside their control, would benefit from said “passport” as they are vaccinated, in contrast to those who have not been vaccinated, and consequently are unable to get the “passport”.
  2. The same issue arises, not only between individuals of the same country but also between citizens of different countries, since it is currently easier to get vaccinated in some countries than in others, a circumstance that may also affect certain ethnic groups, migrants, people with a lower social class, etc.
  3. Furthermore, it is necessary to clearly distinguish between a “vaccination passport” and a “certificate of immunity”. These concepts are not superimposable, since, at present, the level of immunity achieved with the different vaccines and their effectiveness against the different strains of SARS-CoV2 has not been determined, except for the Pfizer vaccine that recently reported the need for third vaccination for reach immunity (read HERE).

Our opinion on passport vaccine ethics 

First of all, the recent studies published on the efficacy of vaccination in preventing COVID-19 or transmitting the infection are very encouraging, which would justify the issuance of this “passport”.

Second, although access to vaccination will not occur for all citizens in a similar timeframe and, therefore, access to immunity will occur progressively, the fact that those already vaccinated will be able to recover normality in their activity as soon as possible constitutes a benefit that does not seem reasonable to give up. The undesirable effects of the lockdowns and limitations imposed by the pandemic could be mitigated to the extent that the population, as it becomes immunized, could relax these coercive measures and recover the freedom of movement and relationships that have been diminished during this past year.

Therefore, even though it is evident that the rollout of this “passport” would occur unevenly between population groups according to their access to vaccination, the gradual return to a situation of normality offers obvious benefits that would justify it.