As the Covid-19 vaccine is rolled out and millions of people start to get the vaccination, there is a growing school of thought that many countries will start to request an immunity passport. While this is a controversial topic for many, it is important to remember that immunity passports are not a new idea and are actually already required in many countries.
Proof of yellow fever vaccination is the most common and according to the CDC is required in currently 19 countries for all travelers with additional countries requiring the vaccine for travelers arriving from high risk countries. In addition to yellow fever, both Polio and Meningococcal Meningitis vaccinations are required for some countries for travelers arriving from areas where these diseases are prevalent.
What is the Covid-19 vaccine?
The Covid-19 vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. Unlike traditional vaccines that use either a dead virus or watered down version of the live virus in order to trigger an immune response, an mRNA vaccine is basically a set of instructions that enable your body to build proteins that elicit an immune response from your body.
Well, I’m sure the majority of you have seen a drawing of Covid-19. It’s that spiky floating ball that is pretty much on every newspaper, magazine, and website daily. Believe it or not, that cartoon drawing is pretty much exactly what the virus looks like in real life. In fact, all coronaviruses actually look this way. These viruses are known for those spiky protrusions that tend to look like a crown, which in Latin is called corona. Hence how coronaviruses got their name.
That spiky protrusion is called a spike protein and is what scientists discovered is responsible for gaining access to your cells and infecting you with the virus. This is where the mRNA vaccine is useful. Scientists have discovered a way to create a synthetic version of the RNA that is responsible for those spike proteins. The vaccine is essentially this RNA that delivers instructions to your body to produce its very own spike proteins. Once your body has produced them, your immune system then recognizes there is an intruder within and mounts its defense by kick-starting the immune system to produce the antibodies. So in effect, scientists have literally created a vaccine that makes your body do all of the work.
While the Covid-19 vaccine is new, mRNA research is not. In fact, scientists have been researching and testing mRNA usage for over 30 years. This successful research combined with a massive amount of money in order to fund the vaccine, is how they were able to develop the Covid-19 vaccine so quickly. So, while it may seem like this vaccine was rushed, it has actually been decades in the making.
What does this mean for travel?
Well as we know, currently there are multiple travel restrictions in place in numerous countries around the world. Many have instituted requirements that travelers must either quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or show proof of a negative Covid-19 test. However, it is currently a disjointed approach that causes confusion amongst many travelers.
Some countries have closed off their borders entirely even to their own citizens. Australia is one of these countries, where thousands of its own people are stranded abroad with little hope of being able to return anytime soon. The Australian government does not seem keen on helping its own citizens, so perhaps an immunity passport will help speed up the process of getting these expats home and get them out of what is becoming a dire situation for many.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been working diligently on a digital travel pass that could actually be unveiled as early as March of this year. The app will allow people to store their vaccination and testing information in order to allow quicker clearance when arriving in different countries.
American Airlines has also released the VeriFLY app, the first of any US airline to do so. The app will allow AA’s passengers to download their information when traveling with them into the US. The US government has recently released requirements that any traveler arriving into the US must show proof of a negative Covid-19 test or proof of recovery.
Delta Airlines has teamed up with Atlanta-Hartsfield International Airport and Rome-Fiumicino International Airport and launched a program that will allow quarantine-free travel. Passengers will need to be tested 72 hours prior to departure with a rapid test in Atlanta and a rapid test when arriving in Rome. Before leaving Italy and returning to the US, they will also be required to take an additional rapid Covid-19 test.
The CEO of Qantas has already announced that vaccines will be compulsory for any international travel, but it remains yet to be seen how they will track passenger’s vaccine status.
For their part, government officials have also started to embrace the idea of immunity passports or at least proving such immunity. Two such countries, Iceland and Hungary are allowing people to enter if they can prove they have already had Covid-19 and recovered with proof of both a positive and negative test result.
Places like the US and UK are already issuing vaccination cards, which are similar to the yellow cards travelers get for the yellow fever vaccination. So while not an immunity passport per se, the proof of vaccination could very well be used for anything such as returning to work, travel, and even large events.
So are immunity passports a good idea?
Well that remains to be seen. Many opponents are worried that immunity passports will cause a greater divide between societies. People with the means and healthcare access to get the vaccine will be at a much greater advantage than those without. It also will be interesting to see how this plays out for anyone that refuses the vaccine. Currently, if you enter a country that requires a yellow fever vaccination and you do not have proof of a previous one, they will either give you one on site or send you on the next flight home. If this holds true for the Covid-19 vaccine, then many people may no longer be able to travel internationally if they refuse the vaccine and can not prove immunity.