Tech giants are teaming up to build digital vaccine records
Health agencies have relied on paper vaccination certificates to fight epidemics for more than a century.
But Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle are now teaming up with the health care nonprofit the Mayo Clinic and other major health care companies to develop technology that would bring such certifications to people's phones. The companies envision that such "vaccine passports" could allow business, schools, concert venues and airlines to screen whether people have proof of vaccination.
The companies - which otherwise fiercely compete - together unveiled the Vaccination Credential Initiative.
The group's goal is to help develop a secure copy of immunization records, which could be stored in the digital wallet feature on smartphones. The group is also plans to provide papers printed with QR codes that would allow people who don't have smartphones to still access a secure record and gain entry to places that might require such a certificate.
"We wanted to build something that will empower consumers to take charge and have control and be able to manage their vaccination information in the way that they feel most comfortable, but will give them the freedom to start to get back to their life," said Joan Harvey, president of care solutions at Evernorth, Cigna's health services business and a partner in the coalition.
The announcement signals the role that Silicon Valley could play in the next phase of the pandemic - for better or worse.
A digital and secure format could ensure that people can keep track of their credentials in one place, and it could prevent people from creating fraudulent copies of the paper vaccination cards that health agencies distribute.
But health experts and privacy advocates questioned the timing of the initiative - especially as technical and other problems are inhibiting many vulnerable Americans from getting vaccines in the first place.
Bioethicists are concerned about developing vaccination certification tools before immunizations are more widely available.
Schools and some workplaces have long required proof of vaccination among students and some employees. But Nita Farahany, a professor and director of the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke University, warned against businesses and others requiring proof of vaccination too soon.
"I'm just opposed to it right now, when there is a significant limitation on the number of people who can get access to covid vaccines," Farahany said. She said it could make sense to explore such systems later this year, when the vaccine is expected to be more widely available and there will be more data to support its efficacy.
Farahany has warned that such requirements could result in a "two-tiered society," where vaccinated people have access to jobs and public places and others don't. She also worries that putting such requirements in place before more data is available about the vaccine could give people a false sense of security.
The partners in the Vaccination Credential Initiative say it will be up to business and schools to determine how they would use such credentials.
Some businesses are already thinking about it. Already airlines have introduced a health passport app called CommonPass. The app initially checked the status of travelers' coronavirus screening tests, and new vaccination passport apps could work similarly.
Albert Fox Cahn, the fonder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, questioned why tech companies are focused on building vaccine passports and not the technical problems that are currently hampering the rollout of the vaccine. He said the industry should wait for direction from public health officials before jumping to develop solutions.
"It's completely unnecessary," Fox Cahn said. "It's more of the same failed technosolutionism that we've seen throughout this pandemic."
It's not the first time that tech companies have collaborated during the pandemic. Apple and Google teamed up to build systems to notify people if they had been exposed to the virus, but those tools have not been widely adopted in the United States.