With several coronavirus vaccines now in circulation, travelers want to know how to prove they’ve had a COVID-19 shot.
Traditionally, travelers have flashed a Yellow Card, or Carte Jaune, a medical passport issued by the World Health Organization. It’s an official record that some countries require for entrance. The Carte Jaune 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, if so, will it allow you to travel any sooner?
The short answer to both questions is: maybe.
What’s a vaccine passport and how does it document your COVID-19 shot?
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. No widely accepted digital immunity passport exists 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.
How to prove you’ve had a COVID-19 vaccine
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is promoting a vaccine passport called the IATA Travel Pass. The system 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. But for now, 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. CommonPass also lets you share that information without revealing other personal health information. It 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.
Maybe the Yellow Card is enough
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. 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. As a result, there’s 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. Documenting immunity may be the easy part. But should authorities allow you to cross the border unvaccinated? That’s a more divisive question.
Would you travel without a COVID-19 shot?
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 authorities should require a coronavirus vaccination.
“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.”
But others disagree.
“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.”
In at least one respect, I agree with Towey. I’d hate to exclude unvaccinated people from traveling.
High-tech solutions may never happen
So what will happen? How will you be able to prove you’ve had a COVID-19 shot? Unfortunately, no one knows. Because they are private companies, Airlines can require a coronavirus vaccine. Also, countries may make vaccination a requirement for crossing their borders.
Within the United States, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have to prove you’ve had a COVID-19 shot to travel. 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. So, what’s one more line?