Digital passports – could they help life return to normal?

While restrictions on travel could prevent coronavirus transmission in the short term, digital passports showing COVID-negative and vaccination status may help reopen airports and other badly hit areas of the economy, reports Richard Staines.

UK health secretary Matt Hancock has ruffled feathers this week by urging Britons to holiday in the UK this year to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

Hancock’s call for the country to risk the vagaries of British weather instead of heading for sunnier climes is unlikely to go down well with the travel industry, one of the most severely affected parts of the economy following the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the longer term, the government hopes that digital passports that give a reliable indication of a person’s COVID-negative status, and/or vaccination status before flying could allow the travel and aviation industry to recover.

There is also the potential for the technology to be used to allow other industries such as hospitality and sport to restart, by ensuring those attending mass gatherings are free of the virus.

Perhaps most importantly it also provides a safe way for children and students to return to school, college, or university and resume their education without the disruption of lockdowns.

Such a scheme would work in tandem with vaccination to allow a gradual return to normal life over the coming months and years.

But getting the technology to work is taking time.

“Singapore has become the first country to successfully pilot such a scheme, which uses blockchain technology to match a barcode-style digital passport with a test result.”

The UK government’s botched attempt to introduce a COVID-19 app was billed as one way to get the country back on its feet after similar schemes were used successfully in countries such as Singapore.

But the development of an app was beset with difficulties and the one now available is a watered-down version of the original idea, which was billed as a way to use mobile technology to track infection status and allow people to go about their business.

Apps have not been enough to prevent the lockdown measures that are slowing the spread of the virus but disrupting children’s’ education and ruining livelihoods.

But could digital immunity passports be the answer? Several companies are now making progress towards introducing the scheme, which in most cases would match a contemporaneous virus test with digital technology to allow passengers to demonstrate they are safe to fly before they board.

Singapore has become the first country to successfully pilot such a scheme, which uses blockchain technology to match a barcode-style digital passport with a test result.

This is quickly scanned at a destination airport to give the all-clear before leaving the airport around the same time as passport and customs checks.

Developed by health and security provider International SOS and AOKPass, the app was first used to provide a digitally verifiable COVID-19 health certificate for entrance to Singapore on 21 December.

The companies said that the ability to authenticate health records before border points of entry will allow safe and efficient resumption of international travel during the global pandemic.

A Singapore citizen returning from Japan on Singapore Airlines flight SQ637 used the ICC AOKpass for the first time.

The technology was used to present a negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) digital test result for arrival verification at Changi Airport’s immigration counters.

According to the companies this was the first time an immigration authority has used a blockchain based, digitally verifiable health certificate, providing proof of concept for other schemes.

In the UK, rival company VST Enterprises has also launched similar technology, which it says could be used to allow COVID-safe cross-border travel.

The system can be used alongside any form of testing and vaccination and allows secure validation of a passenger’s identity, COVID-19 status and test result.

Live testing of a rival from Mvine and iProov began last week in the UK, partly funded with £75,000 investment from Innovate UK.

This initiative is based around facial recognition technology is set to be tested by directors of public health within the NHS and two trials are expected to conclude by the end of March.

Clinicians would be able to use the service to create an online certificate using a smartphone or tablet.

The person receiving the jab would then be asked to upload a picture of themselves to their electronic certificate, which allow them to verify their identity when they need to prove their vaccination status.

The companies say that the passport can be “plugged into” NHS systems to meet the specific needs of directors of public health.

Other companies are catching on to the idea too – the airline Emirates announced only this week that it is the first in the world to trial a digital travel pass developed in partnership with the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Testing of the system, which matches PCR test results to an app to identify passengers who are safe to fly, will begin in April.

But there is still some scepticism about these schemes, particularly those that aim to provide information about vaccine status, among public health officials.

CNBC reported that there are concerns over equity as Black, Latino and Indigenous populations have been hit hard by the virus but are sceptical about vaccines.

Distribution of vaccines is another issue as manufacturers scramble to meet demand, with at-risk populations being targeted by governments attempting to get transmission under control.

L.J. Tan, the chief strategy officer at Immunization Action Coalition, told CNBC: “I think it’s premature to be talking about how we get people these immunisations certificates.

“Our focus should be on getting people vaccinated. Once we get enough people vaccinated then we can leverage that vaccinated pool for analysis.”

Digital passports therefore offer some hope of a return to normal, but not until the vaccination programmes are fully up and running and the virus is on the retreat.

About the author

Richard Staines is senior reporter at pharmaphorum. He has been a journalist since the 1990s and has written for websites, newspapers and magazines. He has always had an interest in health, and has been focusing on the pharma industry since 2010, interviewing industry leaders and covering stories on topics including regulation, mergers and acquisitions, and the latest clinical developments.