Originally published to The Washington Post by Christopher Elliott on December 30, 2020
With several coronavirus vaccines now in circulation, travelers can’t stop talking about the Yellow Card.
The Yellow Card, or Carte Jaune, is a medical passport issued by the World Health Organization. It’s an official record that some countries require for entrance, and it can document vaccination against diseases ranging from cholera and yellow fever to such childhood illnesses as rubella.
Will there soon be a similar card for covid-19? And will it allow you to travel any sooner?
The short answer to both questions is: maybe.
Several organizations are working on a vaccine passport. Australian airline Qantas has already announced that it will start requiring coronavirus shots for all passengers on its international flights.
But, as with most things during this seemingly unending pandemic, the long answer is complicated. There is no widely accepted digital immunity passport yet. Travelers remain divided on whether to get vaccinated for the coronavirus. And there’s no agreement on whether proof of having received the coronavirus vaccine should be required to travel.
At the moment, there’s no Yellow Card equivalent for covid-19, and since the vaccines are so new, it would be impractical. In the United States, vaccine recipients receive a small white card called a covid-19 vaccination record card that documents inoculation.
“Given this void in the market, there are a number of vaccine passport programs,” says Bruce McIndoe, a senior adviser at WorldAware, a risk-management company.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is promoting a vaccine passport called the IATA Travel Pass. The system, billed as a digital platform for passengers, would inform them which tests, vaccines and other measures they require before traveling. It would offer the ability to share test results and vaccinations in a verifiable, safe and privacy-protecting way. Travel Pass is still under development.
The World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss nonprofit group, are testing a digital immunity passport called CommonPass. It’s a system that would enable travelers to access lab results and vaccination records and consent to have that information used to validate their covid-19 status without revealing other personal health information. CommonPass would be accessible from your phone.
Late in 2020, IDEMIA, an online identity-management company, unveiled a broader technology solution called Augmented Borders that would allow you to scan the chip in your passport and use your mobile phone as a proxy passport. Such a system could also contain your immunization records, but adoption may be months away.
The best Yellow Card may be the Yellow Card, also called the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis. It might be the leading candidate for an international coronavirus vaccine passport. It’s already recognized internationally. If you are vaccinated for any travel illness, like yellow fever, the provider will send you a Carte Jaune. When you get a coronavirus vaccine, just ask your health-care provider to note your vaccination on your Yellow Card.
“The question is validity,” says Bob Bacheler, managing director of Flying Angels, a medical transport company. “Vaccination cards have no security and no way to be validated. Is the U.S. government going to issue an official vaccination card? We do not have a national ID nor the infrastructure to have an effective, reliable database that airlines could check for passengers to board aircraft.”
Just like the coronavirus vaccine, it seems vaccine passports — whatever their form — will come into focus quickly. But documenting immunity may be the easy part. Whether travelers should be allowed to cross a border if they haven’t been vaccinated for coronavirus is a more difficult and divisive matter.
Many say they would not travel without first getting a vaccine.
“I’m a firm believer in vaccines,” says Sandra French, a retired college professor from New Albany, Ind. “I had polio before any vaccine for it was available, and I would not wish that experience on anyone. I will definitely get the covid-19 vaccine once it is available.”
Others feel that a documented coronavirus vaccination should be required of everyone.
“I would feel more comfortable if the airlines required vaccinations of all travelers,” says Laurel Barton, a guidebook author. “This vaccination isn’t about personal freedoms. Like [tuberculosis] or smallpox inoculations, the covid vaccine will be crucial to overcoming the disease worldwide.”
“It is very important to give everyone the choice on whether or not they take a vaccine,” says Bryan Towey, an entrepreneur based in New York. “For me, I would not be willing to take the coronavirus vaccine under any circumstances.”
Towey, like a lot of Americans, is concerned about the long-term effects of the coronavirus vaccines. Requiring vaccination for travel, he says, sets a “dangerous precedent.”
I agree with Towey in at least one respect. I’d hate to have travel shut off to anyone who isn’t vaccinated.
So what will happen? No one knows. Airlines can require a coronavirus vaccine because they are private companies. Countries may also make vaccination a requirement for crossing their borders. Within the United States, it’s highly unlikely that the vaccination would ever be required for travel, according to experts. Health authorities have to figure out how to document vaccination and share that data securely, according to Chris Bowen, the chief privacy and security officer at ClearDATA, a health-care company. And that could take months, if not years.
“The ethical concerns are plentiful,” Bowen says.
I’ve discussed the vaccine with my teenage kids (14, 16 and 18), and we plan to get it as soon as possible. For us, the benefits of immunity far outweigh the risks. We’re ready to travel again. And besides, our Yellow Cards are already pretty marked up. What’s one more line?