With the travel industry still reeling in the midst of the pandemic, a new lifeline may save both airlines and travelers—the immunity passport. Intended as a way of ensuring passengers are COVID-free before they board, immunity passports are touted as the way of the future—but are they? Our Magic 8-Ball response: Don’t count on it.
What Is an Immunity Passport?
An immunity passport is the nebulous name for any number of apps that will verify a traveler’s status relative to COVID-19. Originally conceived as verification that someone had already had COVID-19 and was therefore immune from catching it again, the term has been broadened as the pandemic has evolved. Now, a so-called immunity passport may show evidence of one or more of the following:
- A negative COVID test
- Proof that you’ve already had COVID-19
- Proof that you carry COVID-19 antibodies
- Proof that you’ve completed a COVID vaccine
In theory, air travelers would flash the app at check-in or upon boarding a plane and be free to travel to any destination that accepts the immunity passport as verification of “safe” traveler status. If broadly accepted, an immunity passport could quite literally open doors for passengers to enter airports and airplanes, cruise ships, hotels, resorts, and entire countries and continents.
For travel providers desperate to get customers traveling again and travelers themselves with burning desires to hit the road, the immunity passport seems like everyone’s ticket to ride. But loads of uncertainty remain about the how’s, when’s, and who’s of the process. “Immunity passports are a logical step to take,” says Pauline Frommer of Frommer’s Travel Guides fame. “But I don’t know if there’s an infrastructure to support them.”
More Questions Than Answers
Because there is no central site of governance for worldwide travel, the immunity passport terrain is currently something like the lawless Wild West—here are just a few of the issues at hand:
Dozens of companies have launched immunity passport apps, some with dodgy credentials, and many with no assurance that they’ll be accepted by any or all travel providers or border control. Even more established apps might not pass muster worldwide, says Nick Lambe of TravelSafe Systems, which has developed its own passport app, iWarrant. For example, the Travel Pass app in development by the IATA (International Air Transport Association) uses blockchain technology, a system that is not permitted under Europe’s rigid GDPR privacy laws for personal identifiable data (PII).
As the vaccine roll out continues
No Universal Adherence
Qantas Airlines has already said that when Australia opens its borders, only vaccinated passengers will be able to fly on incoming international flights, while Iceland, says Frommer, “will accept anyone who can prove they’ve either had the vaccine or already recovered from COVID-19.” The U.S. is requiring a negative COVID test for residents to re-enter from aboard, and has imposed a travel ban on foreign nationals from dozens of countries, including all of Europe, but is not yet requiring negative Covid tests for domestic travel. Dozens of other countries are floating the idea of a vaccine requirement for entry, though few have planted that flag just yet.
Questions About Vaccines and Variants
Amid all this confusion, the coronavirus itself continues to evolve. New variants from the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil have already made their way across the globe. Most vaccines show efficacy against the variants, but not at the same levels as they do against the earlier iterations of the virus. And even if we were all dealing with the same virus variant, we’re not all getting the same vaccine. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show roughly 95% efficacy, while Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine—distribution of which has been put on temporary pause —shows only 66% efficacy. Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia are among the countries using the Sinovac vaccine, which has shown an efficacy rate as low as 50.4% (although for more severe cases that would require hospitalization, the efficacy rate increases to 84%). On top of that, there has not been an opportunity for long-term studies of vaccine duration—will travelers vaccinated this spring still be immune from the virus a year from now?
Are Airlines Onboard?
Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and Panama’s Copa Airlines are among the first to sign on with the IATA’s Travel Pass, which should be available in iOS and Android stores by March. Common Pass, an app project funded in part by the World Economic Forum, is queued to work with JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic when it launches later this spring.
United and Delta (including the entire SkyTeam network), which so far have held back from requiring vaccines as a condition of travel, have both partnered with TrustAssure to create apps that allow passengers to find Covid testing sites and upload their test results in preparation for travel. Delta will soon allow travelers in the US to purchase home Covid tests for before and after international travel.
What we seem to be witnessing are both an industry and global governments waiting for someone else to make a definitive move. “Some of the airline initiatives are pretty impressive,” says Frommer. “And if the airlines manage to do this really effectively, the government might just say great, you handle it.” But if the whole testing and vaccine verification network falls into the hands of private business, that in itself is worrying, she says. “Do we want private industry to have the sensitive medical information of millions (or potentially billions) of people?”
It’s tough to predict how all of this will shake out for travelers, especially once travel restrictions ease and we’re able to consider international travel again. As private companies and government and non-profit partnerships scramble to create immunity passport apps or their equivalents, it’s challenging for any of them to stay ahead of the fast-changing cycle of the pandemic. Will these apps be obsolete by the time they’re ready to be put into use? For the moment, we’ll stick with the Magic 8-Ball’s non-answer answer: Cannot predict now.