What could a 'vaccine visa' look like?

Emma Beaumont
·6-min read
airport security - Getty
airport security - Getty

The encouraging news that pharma giant Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine could be up to 90 per cent effective is a boost that the travel industry so desperately needed.  

However, hurdles remain, from the jab passing further safety tests and being approved for use, to the complex matter of rolling it out on a massive scale. As inoculating entire nations is likely to take a significant amount of time, many countries may ask visitors to prove they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 – an evolution of the increasingly adopted measure of providing evidence of a recent negative test. 

Governments are yet to agree on a standardised way of travellers proving they are Covid-free but, post-vaccine, this could potentially come in the form of a secure digital health passport or ‘vaccine visa’. Advocates argue this would be an efficient and secure way of confirming Covid status and ultimately prevent the spread of the disease across vulnerable, or only partially-vaccinated, populations.  

Here, we map out how these innovations could unlock travel and what technology might be used to help get us travelling again.

Will travel return to ‘normal’ once a vaccine is available? 

The pandemic looks set to alter our travel experience in the most significant way since 9/11, with governments keen to get a clear health profile of arrivals. We’ve already seen a move towards this approach, with many countries requiring arrivals to provide evidence of a recent negative PCR test or take a coronavirus test on arrival. This will likely only increase when a vaccine is deployed and travellers are asked to prove that they have had the jab. Even if the virus ceases to be a major threat, it is likely that health passports will endure due to a heightened focus on infectious diseases and fears of future pandemics.

This demand for an easily verifiable health profile should accelerate a shift towards digitalisation. Sergio Colella, the Europe boss of tech giant SITA – whose clients include airports, airlines and ground operations all over the world – anticipates that should a vaccine become readily available, digital solutions will play a critical role in alleviating health risks when travelling. 

He says: “The industry will need to respond with a layered approach to border checks so that airports can be fully informed as to whether a passenger has completed the necessary tests or vaccines.” 

“The requirements for a visa would increase to include health declarations, including vaccinations, so that health information can be incorporated into checks, even up to the point of departure. Not only does this help to identify high risk passengers, it also provides all passengers with better clarity to plan their travel.”

He emphasises that efficient digital checks could reassure nervous passengers.

“Combined with low-touch technology in airports, smart border management will be vital in re-establishing passenger trust in order to get the aviation industry back up and running. As passengers seek reassurance about their safety, travel processes will continue transforming to build passenger confidence once more.”  

How can I prove I have been vaccinated?

A number of apps have been built that could be authorised to act as ‘vaccine visas’ of sorts. CommonPass, a digital health pass from non-profit company The Commons Project, has welcomed news of the potential efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine.

“As vaccines become more widely available, many countries will require incoming travellers to show proof of vaccination,” says Dr Brad Perkins, Chief Medical Officer of The Commons Project and former Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“We built CommonPass to allow sharing of Covid test and vaccine status in a secure way that preserves privacy.” 

The likelihood of vaccination certificates being required is enhanced by the fact that already certain countries already ask for proof of immunity against diseases such as yellow fever. This comes in the form of stamps in the paper-based International Certificate of Vaccination, also known as the 'Yellow Card'.   

Dr Perkins sees this as an imperfect system.  

“Proof of vaccination by the Yellow Card shares many of the challenges inherent in the current sharing of Covid test results, as paper records are harder to confirm and verify.” 

Certainly, there are flaws in how Covid test results for travel are presented. As well as the fact that evidence is frequently shared on pieces of paper – or photos of the paper –  it often comes from unverifiable labs and may be written in languages foreign to those inspecting it. The lack of a standard test result format and certification system leaves room for confusion and even forgery of results.

“Without the ability to trust Covid-19 tests – and eventually vaccine records – across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” Dr. Perkins says.  

He adds: “With trusted individual health data, countries can implement more nuanced health screening requirements for entry.”  

Arnaud Vaissié, chief executive and co-founder of International SOS, the company behind the ICC AOKpass, another health app that works in a similar way to CommonPass, agrees that ‘vaccine visas’ are the future.

“As both businesses and consumers alike look to resume international travel, secure digital health passports will become vital to passenger safety and experience.”

 He hopes that the app, which uses secure blockchain technology, will help speed up a return to travel.

“While a potential vaccine is fantastic news, it is not going to be an overnight cure that lets us travel the way we did in 2019. We expect the disruption brought on by the pandemic to be felt throughout and beyond 2021, emphasising the need for digital health passports to verify this crucial information.”

Suggesting that these health apps are likely to become ingrained, he concludes: “It is still unclear how long the immunity will last. People may need to receive an annual booster, in effect making certification even more important.”

When could we see health passports in use?

Providing that vaccines are indeed rolled out from early next year, we could see the apps in wide use soon, though they will need to be internationally recognised to make a real impact. There is some hope this could happen soon:  AOKpass says it has pilot schemes in the pipeline in 130 airports across 18 countries. The app also conducted a successful test results trial in September on Pakistan to Abu Dhabi flights.  

Similarly, CommonPass was recently tested on a flight from New York to London, with passengers scanning QR codes that proved they had recently received a negative coronavirus test result.