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As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out, many people who have been stuck at home for the past year are eager to travel to see loved ones or just to get a change of scenery.
Countries across the globe have begun announcing “vaccine passports,” allowing their citizens to use proof of vaccination to travel once again.
China unveiled its digital vaccine passport last month to be accessed via an app that would allow people to verify their vaccination status by scanning a QR code.
Japan recently announced plans for a similar digital passport expected to debut in the coming weeks.
And the European Union says it backs a “Digital Green Certificate,” which would allow citizens who have proof that they’ve been vaccinated, received a negative coronavirus test result, or have recovered from COVID-19 to travel across all 27 member states.
The United States hasn’t announced a plan for vaccine passports, though several companies within the United States are developing digital vaccine certificates for smartphone apps.
And while there are still many unknowns around what vaccine passports may look like in practice, travel medicine experts also believe these passports may play an important role in international travel moving forward.
“I think it is clearly the direction travel is going,” Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, told Healthline.
“There’s long been testing requirements for entering countries, including the U.S., and I think you can’t ignore the building data that these vaccines are highly effective not just in preventing illness but also preliminary data that they also appear to reduce transmission. It’s another tool that can be used to make travel safer,” Wu said.
Based off recent studies evaluating the real-world effects of COVID-19 vaccination, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that fully vaccinated people can now safely travel within the United States without needing to get tested or self-quarantine.
This is as long as they continue to take precautions while traveling, including wearing a mask and physical distancing.
International travel is also safe without testing or quarantine for fully vaccinated people, the CDC says, though people still may be subject to these measures depending on their destination.
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Dr. Scott Weisenberg, director of the Travel Medicine Program at NYU Langone Health, said that adding proof of vaccination adds another layer of protection for travelers.
“For countries that are already requiring a negative COVID test before arriving, a vaccinated person is probably an attractive visitor compared to someone who’s never had the vaccine, because they’re less likely to transmit the virus into that destination,” he said.
Weisenberg noted that the notion of needing a vaccine to enter certain countries is not new. Proof of immunization for yellow fever is already needed to travel to countries like Ghana and Brazil.
“While yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes and COVID is transmitted largely through the air between people from an infectious person, otherwise the concept is exactly the same,” he said.
“You’re required to get yellow fever vaccination not just to protect you but to keep you from being part of a transmission that spreads the virus either in the destination you’re going to or the next country on your itinerary in your travels,” Weisenberg said.
Wu said that while this concept is not new to travel medicine, the nature of COVID-19 does complicate things.
“I think the yellow fever requirements work quite well even if it’s not a perfect system because the infection itself is not the most common among travelers,” he said.
“But when we’re dealing with something like COVID, which is very common, highly transmissible, and has affected every country of the world, it’s not as simple as having a vaccine documented on a yellow card,” Wu said.
In fact, there are already reports of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards being sold online for hundreds of dollars.
Stopping these instances of fraud is a major argument for making these passports digital (along with ease of access), but new technology brings up other concerns, most notably privacy.
“It would have to be done in such a way that the passport states the person has been vaccinated without giving away any personal health information other than that,” Weisenberg said.
The system would also need to take into account people who do not have smartphones and allow these people another way to show they’ve been vaccinated, he said.
The bottom line, experts say, is that there’s still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the future of vaccine passports.
“I do think it’s going to be a reality, but the roll out and exactly how it’s going to look in terms of whether it will be a digital passport or what platform will be used, that’s the messy part right now because so many things are happening at once,” Wu said.
However, what is certain is that, regardless of vaccination status, everyone should still be following the same COVID-19 precautions that have been in place for the past year.
“Even with the vaccine, as good as it is, you really should take the additional precautions of masking and distancing,” Wu said, “not just because it’s a requirement on flights for the most part, but it’s also an extra insurance policy against a vaccine failure event or a variant that may not be as well covered.”