Vaccine passport opportunities and obstacles – Part 2

17th March 2021

Following on from part one and the exploration of the potential benefits of implementing a vaccine passport policy, part two will look into the challenges in implementing such a policy. Notwithstanding the ethical considerations, the practical risks and obstacles can be split into scientific, technological and economic, with each seeing a considerable amount of overlap with one another. These considerations have been raised in a report published by ‘Science in Emergencies Tasking: COVID-19’ (SET-C) at the Royal Society entitled ‘12 Challenges for Vaccine Passports’, which will be drawn upon heavily alongside the Ada Lovelace Institute report entitled ‘What Place should COVID-19 Vaccine Passports have in Society?’. 


Perhaps the most important practical question to ask of vaccine passports is ‘are they scientifically sound?’ The practical purpose of a vaccine passport is to reassure the public enough to restart the economy, particularly for border agents and travellers in the aviation and tourism industry, and event-goers and patrons in the entertainment, leisure and hospitality industries.1 However, as pointed out by the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Royal Society, much is still unknown about the various COVID-19 vaccines including the ‘duration of protective immunity’ and the ‘efficacy of vaccines in preventing infection and transmission by the currently circulating viruses’ as well as newly emerging variants. 2 3 These concerns have also been voiced by numerous government officials including French Health Minister Olivier Véran. 4 It is thought that if vaccine passports were to be rolled out before these questions are satisfactorily answered they would have the potential to undermine public health further, and it is paramount that passports be flexible in order to adapt to the everchanging nature of the pandemic. 


There are also numerous technological implications of a vaccine passport, such as the need for it to be internationally standardised, for example, the use of the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis has been put forward as a precedent. Other technological obstacles that could cause some issues for international standardisation also include the need for the vaccine passport to be both portable and based on a platform of interoperable technologies. What this means is that the technology used to create the vaccine passports would need to have ‘clarity across multiple aspects such as biometric authentication, QR codes, card readers, or paper copies’ in order for the passports to be flexible for individuals and governments. This, coupled with ‘the ability of systems to work together within and across organisational and technical boundaries’, would allow information to be communicated and exchanged.5 Similar technical issues have recently been experienced in Saudi Arabia, causing their Tawakkalna COVID-19 app to freeze.6 Once we have crossed these hurdles, there is also the issue of ensuring that the vaccine passports contain ‘verifiable credentials’ and the protections surrounding privacy, identity and anti-forgery.7 


Loosely connected to the technological implications are the economic implications, with the Royal Society putting forward the question as to the affordability of implementing wide-scale vaccine passports for governments, and whether there are ‘sufficient resources to develop and sustain’ the initiative.8 The answer to this is especially needed if an internationally standardised version of the passports is to be implemented globally, and whether any costs incurred through sustaining the policy would be attached to the acquirement of a certificate. 


As shown, whilst vaccine passports could be a useful tool in the reopening of society after the pandemic, there are many practical obstacles needing to be addressed before such a policy can be truly viable. Further to this, implementing this policy before these issues have been solved could prove detrimental to the global recovery from COVID-19.