Vaccine Passports: What they are, and why India has opposed the idea at international fora

Students looking to go abroad for studies are being prioritised for vaccination among the 18-44 age group as universities overseas make vaccination mandatory for attending class as campuses begin to reopen. This is exactly what is meant by a vaccine passport, which India has strongly opposed at international fora and that WHO says should be avoided at this stage.

What Is A Vaccine Passport?

If you've flown during the pandemic, domestically or internationally, you may have had to satisfy requirements of negative test result and an all clear from an Covid-19 tracker app, like Aarogya Setu. This is nothing but the idea of a 'passport' at work, a document that establishes your eligibility to travel and enter different jurisdictions and sites. In fact, vaccination passports, too, are nothing new as a concept because countries are known to demand that visitors be inoculated against specific diseases before they can enter.

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But while the requirement of such documents may be answered via ad hoc solutions when travel is limited to essential functions and most places remain under some level of restrictions, a general regime of compulsory documents will need a proper system and standards to be devised to be non-discriminatory and implementable by all.

Why Is There No Consensus On Vaccine Passports?

Dr Harsh Vardhan, the Union health minister, told a G7 health ministers' conference to which India was invited that vaccine passports would be discriminatory to people in the developing world since such countries have so far been able to vaccinate a far smaller share of its population than the wealthier countries. Compare the US' 40%-plus proportion of the eligible population that has received full vaccination against just over 3% people in India who've got both their doses.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has further pointed out that it is still not sure how strong and what kind of protection is provided by the vaccines currently being used globally under emergency authorisation.

In an 'interim position paper' on proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travellers in February this year, the UN agency had said that its position was
that "national authorities and conveyance operators should not introduce requirements of proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission".

WHO had also pointed out that introducing such passports would also have implications for countries' vaccination drives. "Considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe Covid-19 disease," it said.

There is another factor. Because masking, distancing and frequent sanitisation remain the frontline precautions against Covid-19, WHO suggested that vaccine passports may prompt people to assume exemption from doing the needful.

Is Any Place Using Vaccine Passports?

Actually, quite a few of them. London-based business daily Financial Times reported last week that "hundreds of US universities and colleges have made full vaccination mandatory for students" if they want to be on campus. The report said exemptions on religious or medical grounds are allowed and also that some universities will be providing vaccines for their international students at special camps on campus while others will ask that vaccination be sought right upon entry into the US. Harvard and Columbia have asked students to upload vaccination certificates online, the report added.

Reports in mid-May said that European Union member countries had agreed to "loosen the criteria to determine “safe” countries and to let in fully vaccinated tourists from elsewhere".

There are examples of local vaccine passports as countries open up. IBM is said to have designed the Excelsior Pass in the state of New York, an app that can access government vaccination or health records and indicate whether a person is safe to enter any place.

The International Air Transport Association has created its own app that has a similar purpose. EU is reportedly mulling a Digital Green Certificate that will essentially provide a record of the holder's vaccination and Covid-19 test/infection history. Israel, too, has brought in a 'Green Pass' that allows entry permits to various places for recovered coronavirus patients and fully vaccinated people.


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