Responses to COVID-19 in 2020 exposed significant cracks in the implementation of public health policy. Unfortunately that same dysfunction threatens the resumption of international travel and commerce because of lack of agreement about the form of a COVID-19 passport.
In China, the public health response to COVID-19 was disciplined, coordinated and effective; in the United States, the response was disjointed with inconsistent standards applied by different states and by the political leadership; in the United Kingdom, the response was an abject failure of planning and implementation.
Some countries – like Australia and New Zealand – effectively kept COVID-19 contained and managed by the simple expedient of closing their island borders. Celebration of the low infection rate in Australia disguised the failure to develop any nationally recognized track and trace system, with each State setting their own standards for quarantine, tracking and border closures.
People have every reason to expect that the management of the post-COVID-19 recovery will draw on the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case as some countries are developing their own COVID-19 passport solutions without reference to others. Some other countries are simply not actively considering the issue at this time.
At one level, developing a secure COVID-19 passport is simply a matter of applying the appropriate technology. It should be a straightforward solution using blockchain security features. The inability to develop COVID-19 track and trace systems in some countries suggests the problem of an acceptable COVID-19 passport may be more difficult to resolve. The passport must rest of unquestionable proof of vaccination.
Currently, several groups are developing COVID-19 passports. China has just launched its digital version of a health certificate for international travelers. It uses an encrypted QR code based on blockchain security. Singapore has a government-led process. GovTech (Singapore) developed digital COVID-19 test credentials for travellers pre-departure validation. These are fully compliant with Singapore's SafeTravel program.
Considerable work with blockchain based passports has been undertaken by the International Air Transport Association and the EU. They are well advanced in developing and adopting a standard. This initiative is led by business; so the challenge is to persuade governments to recognize the solutions.
Elsewhere business organizations are taking the lead. The Australia China Business Council is urging the Australian government to support the development of a COVID-19 vaccine passport using blockchain technology to help open international travel. President David Olsson said "We see an opportunity for the Australian government to work with China and other nations in our region to develop the recommended standards for security, authentication, privacy and data exchange."
These varied approaches means questions remain around the compatibility and cross border acceptance of these COVID-19 passports. Mutual recognition of these different approaches is the first barrier to overcome before international travel can truly resume.
However, immunization in itself poses a problem. People who have been vaccinated will show lingering historical evidence of a low level COVID-19 infection. These viral remnants may be picked up by the nucleic and serum IgM antibody tests regimes and deliver a COVID-19 positive result.
This may prevent a green tick on the COVID-19 passport. The suggested solution is for proof of vaccination to be given absolute priority over any lingering COVID-19 positive result.
At a deeper level, and more alarmingly, are the problems associated with the architectural foundations of a COVID-19 passport. It's an issue that is concerning many business organizations because it goes to the heart of the efficacy of a COVID-19 passport.
This issue rests on the recognition of a range of vaccines that will provide the platform for a major boost for international tourism and for a resumption of international business and student travel. The COVID-19 passport is not genuinely useful unless it includes and recognizes "approved" vaccination sources which will enable quarantine free international travel.
The architecture of the COVID-19 passport is the key issue because it rests on the mutual recognition of vaccines as suitable for permitting quarantine free travel.
A COVID-19 passport requires much more than a green tick. Business groups have an important role to play in ensuring that the operational details of a COVID-19 passport, including mutual vaccine recognition, really make international business and tourist travel accessible and possible.