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Coronavirus ‘Travel Pass’ concept picks up steam with airline industry

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With increasingly positive news about an impending COVID-19 vaccine, some industries are taking a closer look at the feasibility of so-called health passports.

The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) revealed Monday that it is developing a “Travel Pass” that would enable travellers to log and identify their COVID-19 test results or vaccination certificate before being approved to travel.

The IATA believes the pass scheme would not only support the safe reopening of borders but also get people travelling safely again.

Read more: Air travel not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024

“Today borders are double locked,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, said in a statement.

“Testing is the first key to enable international travel without quarantine measures. The second key is the global information infrastructure needed to securely manage, share and verify test data matched with traveller identities in compliance with border control requirements. That’s the job of IATA Travel Pass.”

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The strategy would need widespread approval from global governments before nearing reality, but would, in theory, revolve around a digital app. It would be organized in four “modules” or categories that allow users to access information on vaccine requirements specific destinations, as well as the nearest testing centres and labs to their departure location.

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The “contactless travel” portion of the app is where travellers can create a “digital passport.” It’s there the IATA says travellers can receive test and vaccination documents and share that information with airlines to get their travel plans approved.

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The data will not be stored centrally, the IATA said, but authenticated with blockchain, leaving consumers in control of what they share.

It “can also be used by travellers to manage travel documentation digitally and seamlessly throughout their journey, improving travel experience,” the IATA said in a news release.

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The association, whose members account for 82 per cent of global air traffic, will conduct a trial on the pass in conjunction with International Airlines Group.

Its first cross-border pilot is scheduled for later this year. The IATA hopes to launch the pass for Android and Apple iOS phones in the first half of 2021.The platform will be built on open source standards to help interoperability with existing systems including its member airlines’ own customer apps, IATA added.

Other digital “health passport” trials are underway elsewhere in the airline industry. The Commons Project, for example, has created a digital health pass that’s been tested by United Airlines and backed by the World Economic Forum.

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Abbott, a company slated to supply the U.S. with millions of rapid coronavirus tests, has rolled out an app called Navica that’s paired with its diagnostic test. It records results and generates a QR code, which the company hopes to market as a “digital health pass.”

Read more: No coronavirus vaccine, no entry? Experts say it’s possible in pandemic’s next stage

But experts have warned that such schemes could provide a way into greater monitoring of people’s movements and health status. A paper published in the Lancet noted that these types of passes have some potential to facilitate safer movement but that privacy concerns are a significant — but not insurmountable — hurdle.

The World Health Organization has come out against “immunity passports,” which run on the basis of identifying someone who has already had the virus as being safe to travel.

While there is a growing body of research suggesting COVID-19 antibodies can be present for months after infections, scientists and the WHO have stressed that their presence does not equal immunity to reinfection.

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With a vaccine still yet to be approved, the health passport concept is still questionable to some experts.

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“Let’s say the Pfizer vaccine is what they say it is. Well, for how long are you immune? We don’t know,” Kerry Bowman, bioethics and global health professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News in a previous interview.

“Vaccines may prevent you from being ill, but we don’t yet know if people can have a low-grade infection, not get ill, and still pass it on to other people. From a concert point-of-view, that would be very problematic.”

— with files from Reuters