What is a vaccine passport and will you need one to travel?

When travelers venture back out, many — especially those flying overseas — will need to manage new requirements to prove they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 or received a vaccine.

Travel industry trade groups, airlines and other organizations are developing so-called vaccine passports to make it easier to navigate changing rules. Most are in early stages or only used in certain destinations, though their creators say they are working to expand use. What’s less clear is whether any will emerge as a standard accepted broadly worldwide.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know.

What is a vaccine passport?

A vaccine passport is a record of a traveler’s COVID-19-related health data, including whether they have been vaccinated or tested negative for the virus that causes it.

Some countries required visitors to show proof of certain vaccinations, such as yellow fever, before COVID-19, but the digital systems being developed would be more efficient than the current paper-based system, said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for airlines.

The airline group said the app it’s developing is focused on COVID-19 requirements, but it has the potential to cover additional vaccines.

The apps also provide information to help travelers navigate COVID-19 travel restrictions, including the type of test required at their destination.

Who’s making them?

The airline trade group is developing an app called Travel Pass meant to be used by any airline. Another, CommonPass, is a project from Swiss NGO the World Economic Forum and The Commons Project Foundation, a nonprofit that develops technology for public use.

Clear, a service that lets members use biometrics to verify their identity at airport security and started operating at O’Hare International Airport in 2019, has a Health Pass app. Some airlines have their own versions.

How does it work?

That depends on the app. In addition to sharing information on travel requirements and testing sites, some ask users to upload their health records.

Others, including CommonPass, let users connect to lab results and vaccination records through the app, which The Commons Project Foundation CEO Paul Meyer said helps prevent tampering. Users get a QR code they can show the airline before boarding or at customs, if their destination accepts the app as proof they meet the requirements to enter.

Clear uses CommonPass’s technology to link to users’ health records. On certain United Airlines and Delta Air Lines flights from Los Angeles to Hawaii, Clear Health Pass users who meet Hawaii’s negative test requirements get a wristband at the gate that allows faster processing on arrival. There is a fee to use Clear at airport security, but Health Pass is free.

Do I need one to travel?

No. The World Health Organization said last month it does not support making vaccination mandatory for international travel because it’s not yet clear how effective vaccines are at preventing transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, and because access to vaccines is limited.

Then there’s the question of whether digital vaccination certificates will be widely accepted.

The WHO is working to create a framework for a digital vaccination certificate — something that would help ensure any individual app is widely accepted as proof a traveler meets health requirements, Flint said.

Digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation has raised concerns about equity, since worldwide access to the vaccine remains limited.

“It’s creating a society of haves and have nots, who can come in and who can’t,” said Alexis Hancock, EFF’s director of engineering.

Where can they be used?

Most vaccine passports are still being developed or only in use at certain destinations.

In addition to flights between Los Angeles and Hawaii using Clear, CommonPass is being used on JetBlue flights from Boston to Aruba, which requires a negative COVID-19 test. The Commons Project Foundation is working with other airlines, including United Airlines, and is in talks with about 30 countries in hopes of broadening access, Meyer said.

The International Air Transport Association has been testing its app and expects it to be available by late March or early April. Airlines could also integrate portions of the association’s app into their own, Flint said.

Some currently only accept COVID-19 test records. Clear said it will begin validating vaccine records soon, and United plans to start letting customers flying to eligible destinations upload and store vaccination records using its app in early April.

Do you still need other records?

Yes. United Airlines and American Airlines encourage passengers to bring additional documentation of negative tests even if their results have been verified through the airlines’ apps, since international destinations may require additional proof their requirements have been met.

Should I be worried about privacy?

Vaccine passport creators haven’t shared many details on how they will protect users’ information, Hancock said, raising concerns about privacy and data breaches.

The International Air Transport Association and CommonPass said apps won’t store data in a central place and will let users choose when to share it.

Consumers may decide it’s worth sharing vaccine status or test results with airlines, which already have a lot of their personal information, said Matthew Kugler, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

Can they be used for anything besides travel?

Chicago-based Hyatt is exploring using VeriFLY, the same app American Airlines uses, to let people planning events set up criteria for meeting participants, such as a negative COVID-19 test. The Commons Project Foundation is working with hotels, cruises and schools to potentially use CommonPass to verify test or vaccine records, Meyer said.

Clear has partnered with companies that use its app to conduct health questionnaires, temperature checks or require COVID-19 tests for employees or customers. The Buffalo Sabres, for instance, are using Health Pass to have fans get tested and take a screening questionnaire before attending hockey games.

Story by Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune.