‘Vaccine passports’ are on the way, but developing them won’t be easy

Washington Post

The Biden administration and private companies are working to develop a standard way of handling credentials — often referred to as “vaccine passports” — that would allow Americans to prove they have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as businesses try to reopen.

The effort has gained momentum amid President Biden’s pledge that the nation will start to regain normalcy this summer and with a growing number of companies — from cruise lines to sports teams — saying they will require proof of vaccination before opening their doors again.

The administration’s initiative has been driven largely by arms of the Department of Health and Human Services, including an office devoted to health information technology, said five officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the effort. The White House this month took on a bigger role coordinating government agencies involved in the work, led by coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients, with a goal of announcing updates in coming days, said one official.

The White House declined to answer questions about the passport initiative, instead pointing to public statements that Zients and other officials made this month.

“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” Zients said at a March 12 briefing.

The initiative has emerged as an early test of the Biden administration, with officials working to coordinate across dozens of agencies and a variety of experts, including military officials helping administer vaccines and health officials engaging in international vaccine efforts.

The passports are expected to be free and available through applications for smartphones, which could display a scannable code similar to an airline boarding pass. Americans without smartphone access should be able to print out the passports, developers have said.

Other countries are racing ahead with their own passport plans, with the European Union pledging to release digital certificates that would allow for summer travel.

U.S. officials say they are grappling with an array of challenges, including data privacy and health-care equity. They want to make sure all Americans will be able to get credentials that prove they have been vaccinated, but also want to set up systems that are not easily hacked or passports that cannot be counterfeited, given that forgeries are already starting to appear.

One of the most significant hurdles facing federal officials: the sheer number of passport initiatives underway, with the Biden administration this month identifying at least 17, according to slides obtained by The Washington Post.

Those initiatives — such as a World Health Organization-led global effort and a digital pass devised by IBM that is being tested in New York state — are rapidly moving forward, even as the White House deliberates about how best to track the shots and avoid the perception of a government mandate to be vaccinated.

One of the teams working on vaccine passports is the Vaccination Credential Initiative, a coalition endeavoring to standardize how data in vaccination records is tracked.

“The busboy, the janitor, the waiter that works at a restaurant, wants to be surrounded by employees that are going back to work safely — and wants to have the patrons ideally be safe as well,” said Brian Anderson, a physician at Mitre, a nonprofit company that runs federally funded research centers, who is helping lead the initiative. “Creating an environment for those vulnerable populations to get back to work safely — and to know that the people coming back to their business are ‘safe,’ and vaccinated — would be a great scenario.”

Anderson’s team is aiming to release its free software standards in April, hoping developers will use them to help build digital vaccine records that allow people to show they have been inoculated. The Vaccination Credential Initiative includes the Mayo Clinic, Microsoft and more than 225 other organizations, many of which have pledged to use the code when administering shots.

Biden administration officials privately acknowledge the high stakes of the effort.

Proof of vaccination “may be a critical driver for restoring baseline population health and promoting safe return to social, commercial, and leisure activities,” according to the March 2 slides prepared by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and obtained by The Post. But officials at the session — attended by more than 150 staff from the health, defense, homeland security and other departments, and even far-flung agencies such as NASA — warned of the “confusing array” of efforts underway to create credentials.

“A chaotic and ineffective vaccine credential approach could hamper our pandemic response by undercutting health safety measures, slowing economic recovery, and undermining public trust and confidence,” one slide reads.

Micky Tripathi, whom Biden tapped as the national coordinator for health IT, recently said federal officials are concerned with a variety of health-tech challenges, including protecting the credentials against fraud, ensuring data security and making certain that low-income populations aren’t squeezed out.

“How do we make sure that whatever is available is accessible to everyone so no one is left behind or feeling like they can’t participate in the return of their day-to-day activities?” Tripathi asked at a virtual meeting hosted by the Health IT Leadership Roundtable on March 11.

Tripathi told the group he didn’t like the term “vaccine passports,” adding that “passports are something that are issued by governments. … I think of them as vaccine credentials or certificates.” Tripathi did not respond to a request for comment.

Read the rest here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/03/28/vaccine-passports-for-work/

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