Demand grows for digital vaccine passports as borders reopen

In the week since international travelers returned to the US, airlines, nonprofits and tour groups have finally seen a surge in digital health passports that they had hoped travelers would use since their inception.

American Airlines has seen the use of the VeriFLY app for travel increase nearly 10 percent since the US entry restrictions were lifted on Nov. 8, spokeswoman Rachel Warner said. Technology research firm Apptopia saw downloads of these types of apps increase by 5 percent in the week leading up to the lifting of the travel ban, according to Thomas Grant, the company’s director of equity research.

Travel industry experts attributed this surge to the new tide of international travelers.

“With the reopening of the international borders, the burden of proof lies with the individual” [their vaccination status]”Said Dakota Gruener, executive director of ID2020, a non-profit group that supports digital identification. “Airports have to employ so many people to handle a much lower volume of travel than they did before the pandemic because of so much paperwork.”

It’s news that digital apps and travel experts are counting on the industry to regain its pre-pandemic strength as they will be handling passengers faster.

“If we can continue to rely on handwritten, paper-based or visually scanned certificates, this will be a less efficient process,” said Grüner. “You will see backups and very long queues for take-off and landing.”

Vaccine apps have struggled to offer a product that meets the different certificates and passports accepted by different countries.

For example, some countries in Europe require citizens and residents of the European Union to purchase the EU digital Covid certificate or the digital green certificate in order to share it either in digital form or in paper form via a QR code. Australia is introducing an e-passport system called ICAO. India has issued more than 900 million vaccination certificates through its DIVOC (Digital Infrastructure for Vaccination Open Credentialing) digital enrollment platform, according to the Linux Foundation Public Health, a non-profit that develops open source epidemic control software. Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka are also considering this option.

This means that the responsibility for checking vaccination status rests with the airlines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not mention which digital credentials are accepted on their website as they are used and accepted differently in different countries. The airlines are obliged to check the vaccination records and to match the name and date of birth in the traveler’s passport. Vaccine providers, manufacturers and vaccination data are also required as proof.

Some digital credentials have compatible airline verification applications to scan the passport and verify authenticity. But, according to Jenny Wanger, program director at the Linux Foundation Public Health, airlines aren’t necessarily equipped to have the verifier apps for all different countries around the world.

“I would be surprised if they actually scan these apps,” said Wanger. “You look at the digital output of a phone, but treat it just like a paper card. So when reading the app, they look for the correct name and date to show that they are fully vaccinated and not only partially vaccinated. ”

Standardizing app credentials across borders is a major challenge. The Biden government said in April that the federal government will not make vaccine passports or plan to require them. Hence, private sector companies and non-profit groups building a global network of certificates are hoping for policymakers from around the world.

“Technology, politics and governance have to go hand in hand,” said Grüner. “What we are seeing right now is technology and in some places politics, but what we don’t necessarily have is this international framework of trust.”

Travel industry experts noted that there are a number of guidelines that can be used by policymakers in countries that have long relied on vaccinations for entry.

“The vaccination status has been part of traveling in certain countries for many years,” said Wanger. “I think it’s becoming more and more of a standard as part of what you need to travel safely.”

Meanwhile, travelers are eager for any guidance. Judith Coates, a travel advisor in her early 60s from Ontario, Canada, said she has made four trips to Portland, Oregon since the pandemic started. She has also traveled to Mexico and Jamaica for a work and family outing in the past two months.

For these trips, she relied on an Ontario provincial digital vaccination card. However, she said the US should also develop a standardized app so travelers can upload their vaccination and testing information to the app. She said she saw how much time and trouble the trip would bring.

“What happened because there is no standardized app for entering the US, some travelers are denied or told their test is not accurate,” Coates said, referring to travel clients she works with. “They usually check in just an hour and a half before their flight time. Now they have to add an extra hour as the check-in will definitely take longer. “

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