Now that COVID-19 vaccines are steadily getting distributed in Singapore and many parts of the world, and with health testing becoming a regular feature of post-pandemic travel, the attention is turning to how travelers can prove they are free from — or are protected against — the deadly virus.
Moreover, the recent spate of COVID-19 cases in Singapore are mostly imported cases rather than locally-transmitted infections.
One emerging trend is ‘digital health passports’, which document the health status of travelers, keeping record of both vaccination and COVID-19 test results.
In China, many firms have rolled out their versions of vaccine passports, with popular ride-sharing, chat, and payment apps already displaying information about vaccination status.
This is also the case in Singapore. Many startups have joined the race to develop such ‘passports’, which mostly takes the form of a mobile app.
As such health records are stored digitally, it resolves the issue of lost or damaged physical medical reports. However, these ‘passports’ would have to be recognised by individual governments to allow international travel.
The Digital Health Passport Race In S’pore
Several different companies and international bodies are suggesting a variety of technological solutions at the moment to document and verify travelers’ health status.
Here are some of the different ‘passport’ solutions that are currently undergoing trials in Singapore:
1. IATA Travel Pass
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has designed a digital health pass called Travel Pass.
The mobile app contains information required by many governments. The pass enables authorised labs and test centres to securely share test and vaccination certificates with passengers.
Passengers can then create a digital passport and share testing or vaccination certificates with airlines and authorities to facilitate travel. In effect, the Travel Pass contains the information to verify whether a passenger is eligible to undertake their travel journey.
Singapore Airlines launched the initial trials of the IATA Travel Pass framework in December 2020 on flights from Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.
It will conduct another two-week trial of the app between March 15 and 28 for customers travelling from Singapore to London.
Temasek-founded Affinidi is working with government agencies and private sector partners on trials for inbound travellers.
It has built a web application called the Universal Verifier, which acts like a single terminal of sorts that can read everything.
It will work with all the different standard providers to be able to read the QR codes and display the result in the same way to the immigration officer. This helps to save a lot of time as the immigration officer doesn’t have to learn different types of standards.
Affinidi currently has eight digital health passport providers onboard, including Accredify and AOKpass. Others include Knowledge Catalyst, NextID, Collinson, and 3DCerts.
Affinidi said more details about trials in Singapore will be revealed soon. It has also received interest from other countries and is engaging them to see how it can scale up the solution.
3. SGInnovate and Accredify
The DHP is the first blockchain-powered solution to issue secure, tamper-proof digital COVID-19 medical records at scale.
The platform was developed with the support of the National Research Foundation (NRF) and first deployed by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to better manage the pandemic for migrant workers in Singapore.
The DHP is extending its application to boost safe travel and verification at the borders based on a national health certificate framework co-developed by the DHP team and Government Technology Agency (GovTech), MOH and others in Singapore.
4. ICC AOKpass
ICC AOKpass is a mobile app launched by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), International SOS, SGS Group and co-developed with Singapore-based start-up AOKpass.
Once individuals have medical results, they can enter the information into the app to create a pass.
A unique code is generated and shown to the individual and their medical practitioner for them to verify the information. They will then be able to show the QR code for verification at airports.
On December 21 last year, a Singapore citizen returning from Japan successfully used the ICC AOKpass to digitally authenticate negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results, for arrival verification at Changi Airport’s immigration counters.
Following the successful pilot program, passengers travelling to Singapore from Indonesia and Malaysia can now use the pass to show their Covid-19 test results at dedicated immigration lanes at Changi Airport.
International SOS states that this will be rolled out to other international travellers “in the coming months”.
There’s More Than Just Privacy And Data Concerns
As plans to resume travel has accelerated since the vaccine rollout, it makes it clear that we would need digital health passports to resume travel.
The government may say that you do not need to have one, but the implications such as extensive testing and paying for quarantines will not make the travel worthwhile.
While digital health passports may indeed be the quickest and most effective way of resuming international travel, there are still concerns around security and personal data.
As with any app that stores health records, there will be privacy and fraud concerns.
Accredify, for one, assures that the appeal of digital accreditation systems — such as its own, which is based on blockchain — is that they are tamper-proof and are therefore unable to be falsified.
It added that medical documents stored privately and securely on its app are accessible only to users, giving them the decision of who to share their medical records with and when.
Beyond privacy and data concerns, if the passport becomes sort of ‘a pass into society’, there are bound to be political considerations.
Anti-vaxxers or vaccine-hesitant people may feel that the vaccine and passport combination — if mandated — is an intrusion into their personal freedoms.
While the current crop of vaccines is highly effective, we are not yet sure if they are a barrier against transmission. Leaving even a slight risk of a passport-carrier transmitting the disease might not be a great idea as the virus rapidly mutates.
These passports may invoke a false sense of security and therefore, giving out such passports may promote risk-taking behaviour that prolongs the pandemic.
Supporting The Safe Reopening Of Borders
IATA has recently announced that we may be able to resume personal or leisure travel in the second half of 2021.
This is exciting news for desperate travelers, and we simply cannot deny that digital health passports will support the safe reopening of borders.
However, the success of digital health passports will hinge on the effectiveness of vaccines. Currently, little is known about whether vaccines prevent the spread of Covid-19, though research is underway.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged caution toward health passes, telling authorities and travel operators not to introduce proof of vaccination as a condition for international travel.
WHO reasoned that the efficacy of vaccines in preventing transmission is not yet clear, and global vaccine supply is limited.
Coordinating the various existing and pending vaccine passports on the market, and ensuring users’ certifications are linked to verified and approved medical facilities, will prove to be a major challenge.
In order for vaccine passports to be an internationally practical tool, there will need to be a standardised platform that crosses all boundaries such as the current passport system.
Ultimately, the resumption of international travel will depend as much on countries’ willingness to reopen as it does on the travel verification technology in place.
Featured Image Credit: Affinidi