By Dr Sharon Hakkennes, senior director analyst at Gartner
In mid-January this year, a coalition of large technology and health companies launched the Vaccine Credential Initiative to create a system for storing and retrieving digital records of vaccinations. In the same time frame, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a digital health working group to develop a framework and standards for a smart digital vaccine certificate for yellow fever and COVID-19, paving the way to add other vaccines later.
High-profile efforts like these increase the potential that vaccine passports will become a reality, even as important questions remain, including the technology that will be used, the source and verification of data, and definitions of immunity among them.
Uncertainties of vaccine passports
There are a number of obstacles standing in the way of wide-scale adoption of vaccine passports. Private and public sector organisations must understand the pitfalls, as well as the promise, so they can plan policies if they become a reality.
Key questions that stakeholders, including policymakers, are looking to answer include:
• Standardisation – Who will set the standards? Will there be multiple standards worldwide? How is immunity defined?
• Use – How will the certificates be used? For travel? Work? Entertainment? Will the uses pass legal scrutiny?
• Acceptance – Who will accept certificates? If there are multiple certificates, will some be accepted more widely than others?
• Buy-in – Will people use the certificates? Will certificates have the support of governments?
• Equity – Can people access and manage their digital information? Will certificates create social stigmas or exacerbate the digital divide?
• Governance – Who will oversee the systems and data? How will privacy be protected? How will forgery be identified and combatted?
• Usefulness – Will certificates go out-of-date if vaccines don’t provide long-term immunity? Will certificates need immunity information for multiple strains? Will different groups exhibit different levels of vaccine effectiveness?
• Verification – How will people with immunity be verified? Who will have access to immunisation records? How will that data be confirmed as accurate?
• Infrastructure – Can existing systems handle the data and security needs of digital certificates? Can these systems be integrated and offer interoperability?
• Unintended consequences – Will digital certificates create greater distrust of vaccines? Will it create extra steps for vaccination? Will people be incentivised to get infected to get a certificate?
What society needs to achieve wide-scale use
For a digital vaccine passport solution to work, it must achieve wide scale end-user adoption. Given the above challenges, organisations considering using vaccine passports must buy in to governance frameworks that allow for the acquisition, equity, verification and sharing of immunisation data.
At a high-level, a digital vaccine passport must enable consent-based COVID-19 vaccination records to be accessed in a secure, verifiable and privacy preserving way. It must work across organisational and jurisdictional boundaries. It must also be built on international standards and in a secure, decentralised infrastructure. Data standardisation, in terms of what data is acquired, how it’s formatted and exchanged, is critical.
While many questions remain about vaccine passports, the outlook appears promising. Data-driven applications have already provided significant aid in addressing the pressing, global scenarios spurred by the pandemic. Investigating this technology in the near-term will inform the plans and strategies of public and private sector organisations – positioning them to stand prepared to leverage this solution in returning to normal.