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Globetrotters Alert: You May Soon Need a Vaccine Passport 

A passenger at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, 2020. One remedy for the devastated tourism industry in the pandemic, says the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, is a global vaccine passport. Meanwhile, a vaccine certification system has been proposed for the European Union. PLOY PHUTPHENG/UN WOMEN

Even with vaccines steadily rolling out in many countries, the end of the Covid-19 pandemic is hardly on the horizon. As countries continue to weave in and out of shutdowns, curfews, virus variants and new deadly waves, the travel and tourism industries are being devastated. In the first 10 months of global shutdowns, tourism worldwide fell more than 70 percent, and passenger traffic dropped 60 percent in 2020 over the previous year’s rate, costing airlines a total of $370 billion. And no one knows when various travel bans around the world will end. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, has proposed one remedy: Require “vaccine passports,” which in theory could put travelers’ minds at ease and help curtail the spread of the virus.

ICAO, the Montreal-based air travel policy and diplomacy arm of the United Nations, envisions a coordinated effort to screen travelers by having them present their vaccination records before boarding an international flight. Such a testing certificate would be similar to an e-passport or machine-readable travel document, both established by ICAO and with built-in privacy protections.

The agency recently outlined its proposal at a meeting in Madrid hosted by the Global Crisis Committee, which was arranged by the UN’s World Tourism Organization to figure out how to get the formerly robust industry back on its feet.

At the session, Dr. Fang Liu, the secretary-general of the ICAO, supported the notion of vaccine certificates but expressed reservations about implementing them, saying there is insufficient data about virus transmissions by vaccinated people. Dr. Liu, who holds a Ph.D. in international law from Wuhan University, the city where Covid-19 originated, added: “The international acceptance of test results must be a key priority. Currently, there is no agreed-upon means to do so country-to-country on an irrefutable and fraud-resistant basis.”

Dr. Liu is not alone in her concerns. When asked to comment on the use of travel vaccine certificates, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization told PassBlue, “Given that the impact of vaccines in reducing transmission is yet unknown, and the current availability of vaccines is too limited, [we recommend] that countries do not require proof of vaccination from incoming travelers.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s spokesperson said at a recent press briefing that “the other thing that we have to be concerned about is . . . the criminal element of people falsifying vaccine certificates or, even worse, giving people false . . . vaccines that are not actual vaccines. So, I think the more international cooperation we can get on this, the better in a way . . . especially in a way to restart the travel sector . . . and tourism, which has been so hard hit.”

Or, as Dr. Liu said of vaccine certification, “A number of different approaches are currently being developed, and it is essential we work to ensure their effective interoperability.”

Meanwhile, testing and vaccine certificates are moving ahead elsewhere. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, which chairs the Global Tourism Crisis Committee’s Technical Group, recently proposed the creation of a vaccine certification system for the European Union, to ease travel in the 27-nation bloc. European leaders discussed the proposal by teleconference, though have yet to reach an agreement.

In Denmark, the government stated that it would roll out a vaccine passport for its citizens in the next three to four months. And in the United States, one of President Joe Biden’s executive orders entertains the possibility of government agencies producing digital versions of vaccine certifications.

Within the next few weeks, according to The New York Times, two airlines, EtihadAirways and Emirates, plan to begin using a digital pass developed by the International Air Transport Association to help travelers organize their test documents. The Times also reported that the World Economic Forum and a Swiss nonprofit group are testing a digital health passport, noting that “the challenge is creating a universal document or app that would protect users’ privacy and would be available to all, not just the wealthy or those with smartphones.”

International cooperation will be needed to determine when safe travel is fully possible worldwide. Some say that moment is now. Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, said at the recent Madrid meeting that a campaign called United for Travel will help bring back tourism in the long term by “providing a clear and strong message that safe tourism is now possible.” International alignment will need coordination among groups like the World Health Organization, the European Commission, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Maritime Organization.

The International Civil Aviation Organization’s “Take Off” guidelines for air transport provide ways to begin global standardization for travelers during the pandemic. The guidelines, spelled out in implementation packages, or iPacks, include establishing public health corridors (or PHCs — travel bubbles) to coordinate information among and within countries, testing and cross-border risk management measures and general hygiene protocol.

While countries continue to debate the best way to revive the beleaguered tourism industry, one thing is certain: Without a coordinated effort to standardize and harmonize vaccine and testing data, the economies of many countries will go on suffering.

Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.

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