As the coronavirus pandemic rages on around the globe, mankind is racing to develop tools to manage and share COVID-19 data and updates. Contact tracing is one well-known example. Another emerging tool is the so-called health passport, or “travel pass.”
The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) recently announced that it is developing a “Travel Pass” app that would allow travelers to log and identify their COVID-19 test results or vaccination certificate before being approved to travel. Using the app, travelers can create a “digital passport” where they can receive their test and vaccination documents and share that information with airlines. The Travel Pass would also allow users to obtain information on vaccine requirements for specific travel destinations, as well as testing centres and labs near their departure location. Given the ever-changing travel restrictions related to COVID-19, travelers would benefit from having access to current conditions before and during a trip.
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, explains that,“Testing is the first key to enable international travel without quarantine measures. The second key is the global information infrastructure needed to securely manage, share and verify test data matched with traveler identities in compliance with border control requirements. That’s the job of IATA Travel Pass.”
Obstacles to global adoption
Worldwide adoption of the Travel Pass app will require approval from governments, airlines and immigration authorities around the globe. This may be challenging due to concerns about patient privacy and unanswered questions regarding the level of protection that COVID-19 antibodies and vaccines actually provide. Full adoption will also call for all parties to trust that the Travel Pass is safe, accurate, and verifiable.
A key concern is that this type of app would allow for greater monitoring of people’s movements and virus-related health status. In response to the concern for individual privacy, IATA explains that the data will not be stored centrally but authenticated with blockchain, giving consumers control over what they share.
The World Health Organization is opposed to “immunity passports,” which function on the assumption that a traveler who has already had the virus is safe to travel. Research into COVID-19 antibodies is ongoing, but scientists and the WHO point out their presence does necessarily indicate immunity to reinfection. Furthermore, as COVID-19 vaccines are just now being distributed, the jury is still out as to whether they will provide full protection and, even if they do, how long that immunity will last.
Travel Pass pilot launching soon
The IATA is prepared to conduct is first cross-border pilot of the “Travel Pass” this month and hopes to launch the pass for Android and Apple iOS phones in the first half of 2021.
Meanwhile, competitors are developing technology similar to the “Travel Pass,” and some countries may develop their own, similar systems. Too many systems in play would likely confuse the current situation even more, rather than clarifying it. Ideally, cooperation among all parties might create a synchronized system. We will watch how this evolves in 2021.