12 challenges for vaccine passports

19 February 2021

A COVID-19 vaccine passport is feasible but not all the pieces are in place to allow one to be effectively delivered yet, according to the Royal Society.

A report published by the SET-C (Science in Emergencies Tasking: COVID-19) group at the Royal Society today outlines 12 criteria that should be satisfied to deliver an effective vaccine passport.

The report (PDF) highlights key challenges such as the need for more information on the efficacy of vaccines in preventing infection and transmission by the currently circulating viruses, including genetic variants and the duration of protective immunity in order to establish how long a passport might be valid.  Other issues highlighted include the technical opportunities and challenges of having systems that can work seamlessly with each other and the need to meet legal and ethical standards.

Professor Melinda Mills, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford and a lead author of the report, said: “Understanding what a vaccine passport could be used for is a fundamental question – is it literally a passport to allow international travel or could it be used domestically to allow holders greater freedoms?  The intended use will have significant implications across a wide range of legal and ethical issues that need to be fully explored and could inadvertently discriminate or exacerbate existing inequalities.”

“International standardisation is one of the criteria we believe essential, but we have already seen some countries introducing vaccine certificates related to travel or linked to quarantine or attending events. We need a broader discussion about multiple aspects of a vaccine passport, from the science of immunity through to data privacy, technical challenges and the ethics and legality of how it might be used.”

The report sets out 12 criteria that need to be satisfied in order to deliver a vaccine passport.

A vaccine passport should:

  • Meet benchmarks for COVID-19 immunity
  • Accommodate differences between vaccines in their efficacy, and changes in vaccine efficacy against emerging variants
  • Be internationally standardised 
  • Have verifiable credentials
  • Have defined uses
  • Be based on a platform of interoperable technologies
  • Be secure for personal data
  • Be portable
  • Be affordable to individuals and governments
  • Meet legal standards
  • Meet ethical standards
  • Have conditions of use that are understood and accepted by the passport holders

Professor Christopher Dye, Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford and one of the lead authors on the report said; “An effective vaccine passport system that would allow the return to pre-COVID-19 activities, including travel, without compromising personal or public health, must meet a set of demanding criteria – but it is feasible. First there is the science of immunity, then the challenges of something working across the world that is durable, reliable and secure. There are the legal and ethical issues and if you can crack all that, you have to have the trust of the people.

“Huge progress has been made in many of these areas but we are not there yet.  At the most basic level, we are still gathering data on exactly how effective each vaccine is in preventing infection and transmission and on how long the immunity will last.”

The Royal Society is grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for its support for the Society’s pandemic response work.