China launches vaccine passport while EU races close behind

Article By Uglobal Staff

By Uglobal Staff 

China has launched a digital “vaccine passport” this week in the shape of an encrypted QR code on its WeChat app to promote travel and economic recovery, according to a Chinese news agency.

The European Union is on course to launch a separate vaccine certificate this month to cash in on the upcoming summer tourism season and give a shot in the arm to their pandemic-hit economy.  

Brussels and Beijing hope their versions of vaccine passports will allow inoculated travelers to move freely among countries that recognize their certificates.

The World Health Organization, which does not recommend the creation of an electronic COVID document, has said that a vaccine passport might be “unavoidable,” media reported.

The Biden administration reportedly is looking into the “feasibility” of producing a digital document of vaccine certificates. Other global organizations, like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reportedly have developed digital travel passes for airlines to provide documentation to prove passengers have been vaccinated.

The European “Digital Green Pass” to prove coronavirus vaccine status

On March 1, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the EU body’s vaccination passport program called the ‘Digital Green Pass’ would be proposed to the EU executive later this month. The pass would contain evidence of an individual’s vaccine shots, past COVID tests, and, if they had fallen ill from the disease in the past, information on their recovery period as well. Von der Leyen added the aim of the pass was to gradually enable EU citizens “to move safely in the European Union or abroad - for work or tourism.” 

Details of how exactly this EU pass would work are expected to emerge when the legislation is presented before the European Parliament on March 17.  It is expected to be adopted at a summit on March 25, according to the European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas. 

Even after the EU parliament approves the Digital Green Pass, the bloc would need at least three months to create a technical framework for the pass, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel; some experts, however, suggest that it probably will not be until late June or early July when such EU-approved vaccination passports would become a reality.

Vaccine passports to boost tourism, economy

Tiago Gali Macedo, managing partner of the Portuguese law firm NEXT/Gali Macedo & Associados, thinks the trend towards creating vaccination passports is a positive development. Such measures would give people the confidence to travel abroad safely again, especially if the requirement for mandatory quarantine gets eliminated for those who have been inoculated, he said.

"For us in Portugal, both regarding tourism and immigration by investment, this is going to be a very important tool and is going to have a very positive impact since summer is about to start and people are desperate to travel and start planning their future," Macedo said.

Several other countries are said to be eager to join this vaccination passport bandwagon. For example, there are reports that Cyprus is already in talks with Israel and the U.K. to welcome vaccinated travelers from those two countries over the summer holidays.

Michalis Anastasiou, who is an attorney at the Limassol-based Evagoras Anastasiou & Associates LLC, told Uglobal that while nothing officially has transpired between the countries over the digital green pass, there have been unofficial discussions about the issue.

Concerns over privacy, discrimination regarding COVID passports

Despite many countries developing their own vaccine passports, not everyone is excited about the vaccination passports. In fact, the WHO has voiced concerns that there are still “critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.” It also feared that vaccine preferences for travelers instead for those at high-risk of COVID could create vaccine supply issues. 

Alessia Ajelli, attorney at Milan-based LCA Studio Legale, also expressed reservation about the new vaccine passport move, pointing out that not all EU and non-EU states "are at the same stage of vaccination and won’t probably be for a while and, therefore, the freedom of movement of individuals might be even more limited than it is now."

And even if the EU parliament approves such a vaccination passport, Italy might push for a separate internal confirmation to guarantee health data privacy of its citizens, she said.

"In Italy, some authorities have already commented on this proposal, in particular the Data Protection Authority, which has pointed out that the information and data regarding vaccination and health status are particularly sensitive and shall be processed in a manner that shall guarantee their safety, and not represent an instrument to discriminate or breach constitutional rights of individuals,” she said.

"For this purpose, an internal law adopted by the Italian government would guarantee such protection and in lack of that processing such data would be illegitimate."

EU Commission President Von der Leyen has also acknowledged that different EU states might come up with their own individual arrangements under the EU umbrella.

 “The decision on what you are able to do potentially with such a vaccination certificate is to be decided particularly within each country,” she told media. “But at the EU level, I believe we should use them to ensure the functioning of the single market.”

Marco Mazzeschi, founder of the Italian law firm, Mazzeschi S.R.L, highlighted the importance of resolving all ethical and legal concerns before launching any sort of vaccine passports. He pointed out the dangers of unknown and unexpected issues, which are already surfacing after the European commissioner’s announcement about the Digital Green Pass.

"Shortly after this announcement was made, fake vaccine certificates became available in the black market for around 100 euros each,” he said. “This means that fraudulent vaccine certificates are going to be a problem that must be solved somehow among the EU member states."

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