Tech-savvy Estonia is taking the lead in the global effort to develop digital vaccine passports.
Alongside the World Health Organization (WHO) and Estonian company Guardtime, Estonia is working on a pilot project on how globally recognized electronic vaccine certificates might work, titled "VaccineGuard."
The scheme is to explore the possibility of a "smart yellow card" – a digital version of an existing paper system to prove yellow fever vaccination.
As various countries pursue their own digital vaccine certification, the WHO has so far not recommended vaccine passports for travel. Although that could change, depending on the results of the program with Estonia.
Anett Numa, an expert on digital transitions at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, says that trust, both between participating nations and between individuals and institutions organizing the vaccine passport, is key.
The vaccine passport would rely on each individual country's input, explains Numa. Each participating nation would provide a list of healthcare providers or vaccine distributors, which are nationally authorized to issue vaccine certificates.
Marten Kaevats, an adviser to the Estonian government on technology, told AFP that the primary issue for the project so far is to ensure that anyone checking the certificate can "trust the source."
"Both the architecture and the solution should work both in Eritrea and Singapore," Kaevats added.
Is it safe?
Blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, is being used by Guardtime to recognize and protect the health records of individuals. Along with distributed ledger technology, blockchain is increasingly being used for data protection and data monitoring purposes, largely due to its powerful encryption capabilities.
Personal and health data remain in the original location (i.e. with the passport holder), the company's chief medical officer Ain Aaviksoo, told AFP. Adding that the system provides "cryptographic proof of the certificate and its issuance process and the authenticity of the vaccine."
The company, which is also working with Iceland, Hungary and Lithuania, as well as with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, expects the first countries to begin using digital vaccine certificates domestically "in the coming weeks."
Estonia has more than two decades' experience implementing various digital elements in society. The Baltic nation has experimented widely with e-democracy and has digital health records for citizens.
Estonia has experience with the safe sharing of these records across borders, explains Numa.
Since 2018, Estonia and Finland have shared medical records, allowing individuals to pick up prescriptions across borders or inform medical staff of their history if necessary.
The ground-breaking data share, which now includes Portugal and Croatia among others, provided a dry-run for Estonia to tackle the similar, but far larger, project of digital vaccine passports.
Are they necessary?
Some form of vaccine passport or digital vaccine certificate is considered essential by airlines, with companies including Emirates and Etihad announcing in January the piloting of an application that allows pre-travel verification of vaccinations.
Individual nations, which rely on revenues brought in by tourism, have also pushed for their introduction, although questions linger over the potential damaging effects of vaccine passports.
Talking to AFP, Ana Beduschi, a law professor at the University of Exeter, worries that "these passports build on sensitive personal health information to create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status."
This differentiation "can then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights they may enjoy."
For Numa, shared objectives will make the vaccine passport an inevitability: "We all want to get out of this crazy time already. So, obviously, we need to work together. And this is why it should be universal and international, because everyone is responsible for us getting over this crisis."