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Updated: Jun 13, 2021

Date : 12 June 2021

Researcher : Yip Wai Fong

As country after country is rolling out vaccination programs, governments and the worldwide airlines are also stepping up to enable a common digital vaccine passport to expedite the opening up of borders and businesses.

On 10 June this year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that its digital travel pass developed by blockchain developer company Evernym is expected to go live after several trials that started in March.

Singapore Airlines was the earliest to sign up for the trial, followed by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airlines. Malaysian Airlines joined the trial in late April for flights from Kuala Lumpur to London. To date, a total of 50 airlines are participating in the trial, with 38 being public about their participation, according to IATA press release.

The pass, which is a mobile app available now for download, has four main features

1. generation of a digital passport for identification

2. showing user the required health and other prerequisites based on the user’s input of destination,

3. a registry of testing / vaccination centers at the user’s point of departure

4. if the user takes a test at one of the centers, the center then verifies the user identity and send the test results to the app. Similarly if the user takes a vaccine, the center verifies the user identity and sends the proof of vaccination, or the user can upload onto the app a vaccine certificate issued by the health authority.

After satisfying all the requirements, the app will generate a ‘OK to travel’ to be shown at immigration check-in.

Emirates has announced that it has taken one step further by signing a MOU with the Dubai Health Authority to integrate Covid-19 medical records of Dubai-based travelers into the IATA travel pass, enabling fully digital verification at check-in.

Another Covid-19-free pass finds even wider usage in New York, which, since late March, has been allowing the Excelsior Pass by IBM Blockchain. Any resident of New York who has had vaccination or tested negative for Covid-19 is eligible for the pass.

It allows reopened businesses or event organizers to ask for proof of negative PCR test or recent vaccination from their customers, who can either download the app that has a QR code containing the relevant information. They can also print the pass from the official website to show the QR code at the venue.

As of early June, roughly two million New Yorkers have downloaded the pass, with tens of thousands wanting but unable to download due to technical issues or user mistakes, according to New York Times.

While both app issuers have touted secure information sharing based on decentralized storage – all user information is stored at the phone itself and not with any centralized database – a digital vaccine pass raises concerns about forging unequal access to services and movement within society. The Excelsior Pass is only being used in New York while in nine states, implementation of any vaccine pass is explicitly banned.

In April, the South Korean government announced that it will issue a blockchain digital vaccine passport to its citizens who have been vaccinated. However, the plan was postponed after confronting concerns of potential discrimination and widening social disparity.

Despite issues of privacy, security and social inequality, digital vaccine passports are expected to evolve for deeper and wider usage. IATA said that it will continue to leverage on the technologies behind the Travel Pass to eventually enable contactless identification and accreditation of travel and cargo agents. Discussion is underway to expand the IBM Excelsior Pass to digital wallets that store information beyond Covid-19 records in New York, and other governments are exploring ways to integrate the pass in their countries.

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