As many countries continue to roll out the second dose of vaccines, there is a continuous conversation about the need for a global health certificate on COVID-19. It is argued that it will aid in mobility and access to certain public buildings and other facilities.
The conversation, although not finalised by most countries, is still providing relief for the many people who have been stuck at home for the past year and are desirous of travelling to see loved ones or start working from the office.
What is a Covid passport and why does it seem necessary to have one?
A Covid passport or Vaccine passport or Digital Health Certificate basically is a document issued by a country’s government that shows proof of being vaccinated against COVID-19 or having been recently tested negative for the coronavirus. The document serves as the green light that could grant you access to public places and facilities or even countries looking to reopen safely.
Whilst some countries are still developing their Covid passports, others have finalised and started issuing theirs.
In March 2021, BBC reported that Israel, with the highest vaccination rate in the world, has started easing their nationwide lockdown as it introduced its Covid passport known as Green Pass. Citizens of Israel are required to show their Green Pass to have access to facilities such as hotels, gyms or theatres.
In the same month, China, which has already vaccinated over 52 million of its teeming 1.3 billion population unveiled a Health Declaration QR-code that can be accessed through WeChat – a popular app in the country. This, it is reported, will aid both citizens and foreigners in their domestic and international travels.
France is also taking part in a month-long trial of a vaccine passport for air travel as announced by transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari. It is said that the passport will enable passengers travelling to the French Caribbean territories to use their vaccine passports as proof of testing negative to the coronavirus.
The month of April saw Denmark launching a smartphone app known as Coronapas which helps in identifying whether an individual has had a negative test result within the last 72 hours, a certificate of vaccination or proof of previous infection two to 12 weeks earlier.
Also, countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand Thailand, the UK and Vietnam are all at various trial stages or discussing with other countries, ways of providing and validating Covid passports or digital certificates to aid their citizens in charting the difficult waters of COVID-19.
What are the major concerns over the global implementation of the Covid passport?
Although vaccination against COVID-19 is still ongoing in almost all parts of the world, it is still unclear whether vaccination prevents transmission. In this light, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says vaccinated people could potentially still get COVID-19 and spread it to others.
This revelation from the CDC raises concerns over the need for a Covid passport or digital certificate. On 5th February 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO), in one of its regularly updated interim position papers on vaccines against diseases dissuaded nations from using Covid passports with reasons that there are still many critical things unknown.
According to the WHO “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.”
Aside from this, there are also concerns over the global challenges in equity and access to vaccines. Research shows that most people in low and middle-income countries do not have access to COVID-19 vaccines and may not until somewhere 2023 or later. This is because the vaccines are predominantly available in only a few select high-income countries, leaving much of the world unvaccinated and vulnerable.
According to the Duke Global Health Innovation Centre, 46 per cent of Americans and over a quarter of Europeans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but only 14% of those in South America, 4.8% in Asia, and 1.2% in Africa have as of mid-may.
Issues of groups that are either ineligible or unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, such as children under the age of 16, people with medical exceptions, and religious objections, are included in a COVID-19 vaccine passport system have also been raised.
Concerns over Privacy and Security of personal data has also featured heavily in the ongoing debates on the need or otherwise for Covid passport. For the use of the passport or certificate to be successful, there is a need to combine and store individuals’ vaccination data in a centralised database.
The challenge here is the fact that the central database could expose this information to data breaches and raise questions about oversight and control of that data. Clearly, no one wants their personal information to be exploited and used for other purposes which may be detrimental to them.
Scientifically, there are still doubts about the efficacy and effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines. According to WHO, scientists do not still have answers to the “efficacy in preventing disease and limiting transmission, including for variants of SARS-CoV-2; duration of protection offered by vaccination; timing of booster doses; whether vaccination offers protection against asymptomatic infection.”
Furthermore, WHO believes that there are still “unknowns” in determining how the age and population groups should be prioritized for vaccination, address specific contraindications, how long before travel vaccines should be offered; and possible exemption of people who have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.
Is Africa ready to issue an international Covid Passport?
No. The African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) have rather joined clothes with WHO to push back against a vaccine passport.
The Director at Africa CDC, Dr John Nkengasong, during a press briefing in April, stated unequivocally that any imposition of a vaccination passport “will create huge inequities and will further exacerbate them.”
According to him, “We are already in a situation where we don’t have vaccines, and it will be extremely unfortunate that countries impose a travel requirement of immunization certificates whereas the rest of the world has not had the chance to have access to vaccines.”
Clearly, the position of the Director of Africa CDC shows the continent is not ready to join the world in creating and issuing vaccine passports.
By 2022, Africa targets to vaccinate 60% of its 1.3 billion people, yet the continent has just 2% of all vaccine doses administered globally. This has made the CDC raise concerns over Africa not being able to meet its target.
In the interim, The Africa CDC, in partnership with PanaBIOS and Zimbabwe’s Econet have developed a travel platform that automates cross-border verification of health certificates before travels. This means that air travellers across Africa can now enjoy a faster clearance at the airport before travelling to their destination within and outside their countries.
As Africa strive to provide vaccines for her teeming population, the policymakers continue to push back hard against any covid status credentials that are not equitably applicable.
This report is produced under the project: COVID-19 Response in Africa: Together for Reliable Information being implemented with funding support from the European Union.