International travel declined by around 90 percent after the pandemic hit — but those still crossing borders may have begun to encounter a novel concept: “covid-19 passports,” or a mobile platform that proves a traveler meets a country’s requirements, such as a negative coronavirus test or, in a few cases, having received the coronavirus vaccine.

Also called health passports, these are not official documents granted by governments; rather, they are digital passes issued by apps, and accepted by some companies and countries, which have arisen to meet demands by airlines and governments that travelers have a negative coronavirus status. Instead of showing paper-based proof of a test or vaccination card at an airport — which could either be forged, lost or arbitrarily rejected without a streamlined process — a traveler would be able to store and certify their information via their phone.

Increasing the ease of travel is essential to boosting economies. These platforms, however, also give rise to privacy and equity concerns — such as how to ensure personal data is protected and how to address the needs of billions of people without access to a digital device or digitized health care, yet alone the vaccine, if they seek to travel.

All of this is why, despite the hype, industry experts cautioned that paper trails showing test results and inoculation dates are not going away anytime soon.

Instead, the need now is to “augment paper to be more secure, more privacy-protecting and more verifiable,” said Dakota Gruener, executive director of ID2020, a U.S.-based organization that advocates for digital IDs and is crafting standards for covid-19 passports.

Similar concerns around privacy and equity loom large over plans by countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Israel to create their own similarly named covid-19 passports, which, along the lines of airlines, could be used to limit domestic access to public places based on testing or vaccination status.

Travel checklists

To work, digitized travel health passes need broad and standardized buy-in. They are not quite there yet.

A representative for the World Health Organization said the global health body is “currently exploring how the common vaccination record could be done electronically” and has set up a working group to discuss standards for inoculation certification. The representative added that the WHO opposes governments or travel companies imposing coronavirus vaccines as a requirement to entry “because the efficacy of vaccines in preventing transmission is not yet clear, and due to limited global vaccine supply.”

Many airlines, however, already rely on a database, called Timatic (Travel Information Manual Automatic), to verify pre-departure that a passenger meets travel requirements, such as having the right visa and a valid passport. These resources were developed in part because airlines can be fined by governments if they allow passengers onboard who do not comply with the destination country’s rules.

Nowadays, that has meant it is up to airlines to ensure that international travelers have valid coronavirus test results if a country requires it, as the United States began to do in January. Airlines probably will be tasked with enforcing future coronavirus vaccine requirements, too.

Inoculation as a condition for entering a country is not new. The Yellow Card, officially known as the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, is an internationally recognized paper record, designed by the WHO, of a traveler’s vaccines and booster shots. Many countries have relied on it to check that international visitors meet any individual vaccine requirements, such as inoculation against diseases such as yellow fever.

The physical Yellow Card is also notoriously easy to lose — and to fake. Similar concerns surround efforts to require that travelers have a recent negative coronavirus test or, in a few cases, proof that they have been vaccinated against it. With no standard clearinghouse, there’s little recourse for a country or company to determine whether paperwork is from a real and reputable source.

“The paper processes for vaccine certificates, which have existed for decades, really need to be moved into the digital universe,” said Perry Flint, head of corporate communications for the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

That’s where a handful of digital platforms come in. There’s Travel Pass, a mobile app to host and verify travel requirements such as testing, developed by the IATA, which also manages Timatic. The program is being used on a trial basis by select airlines, including flights from Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Then there’s CommonPass, created by the nonprofit Commons Project, which uses a scannable QR code to hold a passenger’s test data or vaccine documentation, in addition to their travel plans. Some United and Cathay Pacific flights have been trying it out since September.

In the United Kingdom there’s Blok Pass, which is focused more broadly than just travel and aims to offer a platform for customers to securely share health information. IBM has been similarly developing its own product, using the company’s blockchain technology.

Turbulence ahead

Gruener of ID2020 said these technologies have the potential to revolutionize how IDs are digitized — and some crucial pitfalls to avoid.

Earlier this month, ID2020 launched the Good Health Pass Collaborative, a cross-sector initiative to create standards for a digital health pass system. “Without standards, we are going to end up with a whole host of apps and paper-based certificates being used,” which may cause further confusion for customers and companies, Gruener said.

Then there are the privacy concerns among some travelers, who may not want to provide personal health information to an app on their phone. Ed Rayner, commercial director at Blok BioScience, which runs Blok Pass, said apps were designed with these hesitations in mind.

Compared with coronavirus contact-tracing platforms, which in many countries never took off because of privacy fears, “vaccine passports are way easier,” Rayner said. “It’s on their phones, it’s sovereign. So you can show it when you want to show it. No one is watching what you do.”

For both apps and paper forms, Gruener said QR codes — a machine-scannable image unlocking access to stored information — are useful, as they can ensure that only specific information is shared per bar code.

Proof of vaccination to travel or attend school is not new, but the coronavirus has introduced a potential need to modernize outdated paper standards. (Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

But although an app user may want to ensure there’s a widely accepted paper form for health credentials in case their phone dies or is stolen, for travelers without access to adequate health care or smartphones, paper will remain the norm. An estimated 3.6 billion people globally cannot access the Internet, according to the World Health Organization, while over 1.1 billion people cannot officially prove their identity. And although vaccination programs are rolling ahead in many Western and wealthy countries, billions of people in developing countries are still far off from receiving their first shot, underscoring how testing will remain a crucial component.

For now, Rayner anticipated that covid-19 passports would be slowly rolled out and integrated alongside paper trails.

“I think the airlines will have to build this up bit by bit,” he said. “Get it being used, and then it will become the norm.”