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Everything travelers need to know about vaccine passports

An app that centralizes travelers’ test results, health waivers and eventual proof of vaccination is expanding in the U.S.


(Business Wire/Washington Post illustration)

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, health and travel officials alike have pointed to vaccinations as the route back to unrestricted travel. Now, before a vaccine has become available in the United States, two apps that aim to verify travelers’ inoculation are taking off as verification for required test results and health waivers — with one expanding to five airlines’ U.S. routes this month.

But what is a vaccine passport, and how will it be utilized for a safe return to travel? Here’s what experts say the programs aim to accomplish, what their limitations are and where they are already used.

What is a vaccine passport?

Also called health passports, vaccine passports are mainly intended for international travel. They have so far taken form as free mobile apps where travelers upload their verified coronavirus test results and, eventually, proof of a vaccination. Two main options for a vaccine passport exist so far, with one already in operation in the United States, and the other in its final phase of development this month.

CommonPass, a health pass created by the nonprofit Commons Project, has been in trial use internationally since October on United and Cathay Pacific flights between New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. The program operates through Apple’s Health app on iOS and CommonHealth for Android, and it has already been connected to 230 U.S. health systems, according to its creators. It functions as a scannable QR code that holds a passenger’s test data or vaccine documentation as well as travel plans. The program, which is only in trials through participating airlines, is not yet publicly available for download.

Another app in development by the International Air Transport Association, the IATA Travel Pass is expected to launch in early 2021. The mobile pass will be available for Apple users to start and will be rolled out to Android users slightly later, according to IATA. In addition to holding a passenger’s testing, vaccine and health-waiver documentation, the IATA app will provide travelers with a registry of health requirements and testing/vaccination centers.

“The main priority is to get people traveling again safely,” IATA said in a statement. “In the immediate term that means establishing confidence in governments that systematic pre-departure COVID-19 testing can work as a replacement for quarantine requirements. And that will eventually develop into a vaccine program.”

CommonPass also has a focus on protecting travelers’ personal information, and Commons Project Chief Marketing Officer Thomas Crampton said the program was developed in anticipation of a need for people to share their health status when they travel.

“When vaccination does take place, the architecture is such that people will now be able to gather, manage and share their vaccination status, as well as their testing status, in a privacy-protecting matter,” Crampton said. The implementation of the app is up to airlines and local governments requiring test results or vaccines for travel.

What does it mean for travel?

But a vaccine passport, experts note, is not an “immunity passport.” It is still unclear how long immunity lasts after recovering from the virus or after receiving a vaccine, and it is also unclear if recipients of vaccines can carry and spread the virus without experiencing symptoms themselves.

Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said a majority of people will need to take the vaccine for a herd immunity to be achieved.

“Immunity itself is not a means for travel with an assumption you can’t [spread] the virus,” Doron said. “With a vaccine passport we still actually don’t know, once you’re vaccinated, whether you can get into an asymptomatic carrier state and transmit it just as easily as someone not vaccinated. … We may find out that people who are vaccinated may still be able to carry the disease in their airways.”

Pfizer, which is anticipated to provide the first U.S. doses of coronavirus vaccinations once it receives emergency approval, began administering its first vaccinations in England on Tuesday.

Where are vaccine passports already in use?

Starting this month, passengers can use CommonPass for testing verification on five new international routes.

“CommonTrust Network airlines JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic will begin the roll-out of CommonPass in December on select flights departing from New York, Boston, London, and Hong Kong,” the Commons Project said in a statement. That is in addition to the trial routes that began in October for air travel to or from London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore on Cathay Pacific Airways and United Airlines.

Three airline alliances — Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance — have endorsed the app and highlighted the need for a global system of testing and vaccine verification.

“Ahead of a vaccine, ensuring customers understand the latest testing requirements to travel is vital to building consumer confidence and the CommonPass solution is an important step towards offering a common international standard,” Corneel Koster, chief customer and operating officer of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement.

“We expect governments to move with urgency towards aligned testing standards and in parallel, to implement a robust pre-departure testing regime that supports international travel, safely replaces quarantine as soon as possible and enables the skies to reopen at scale.”

When will you be able to use one?

But use of a health passport app for proof of your own vaccination might not happen soon as you think. The timeline for vaccinations to begin for lower-risk individuals — younger people and nonessential workers — is April 2021, Tufts epidemiologist Doron says. But she also calls the prospect of a vaccine before next summer “optimistic” and estimates the summertime to be a safer bet.

Until then, she said, Americans will need to wait to travel.

“People need to not wait to hear that the hospitals have run out of beds to decide not to travel,” Doron said. “Right now, there are many likely candidates for a vaccine … . But I hope people will not get ahead of themselves.”

Travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Safe holiday travel | Sanitizing your hotel | Using Uber and Airbnb

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on plane | Fly or drive | Best days to fly

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Foliage finder | Art road trips

Camping: First-time | Camping alone | Meal planning | Glamping | National parks

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