The federal government is mulling over the potential use of COVID-19 vaccine passports to reopen travel and the economy, with officials saying that they would need “reliable scientific evidence” before considering its use in Canada.
In a statement emailed to Global News on Sunday, Health Canada said governments and international bodies around the world are “exploring the possible use of vaccination certificates as one tool to support the re-opening of societies and economies.”
“The Government of Canada is aware that some jurisdictions are considering granting privileges to vaccinated people through a certification process,” the email reads. “Any similar consideration in the Canadian context would have to be based on reliable scientific evidence.”
Health Canada said the “scientific evidence is clear” that the approved vaccines are “highly effective at preventing illness,” but that it was still unknown whether vaccinated people could still be asymptomatic and spread the virus.
To date, Canada has approved four vaccines for use across the country.
In December, Health Canada green-lit mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The agency also recently approved a COVID-19 vaccine candidate from AstraZeneca-Oxford in February, while a shot from Johnson & Johnson was given the OK last week.
Ultimately, the agency said it is the provinces and territories that are keeping track of immunization records.
Experts have since raised concerns over the implementation of vaccine passports in society, arguing that its use could infringe on personal privacy as well as creating “different tiers of people and different levels of freedom” in society.
Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, said that there still remains several groups of people who either cannot or don’t want to be immunized once the vast majority of Canadians receive a vaccine against the virus — pointing at immunocompromised groups and people who simply don’t want vaccinations.
“We can be as critical as we want about those people, but they have a fundamental right — It’s their body, they don’t want that and so they will have some of their freedom likely restricted,” said Bowman in an interview with Global News on Sunday.
By Sunday afternoon, Canada had administered 2,329,622 doses of the approved shots.
According to a tally from Johns Hopkins University, 1.52 per cent of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated against the virus.
The federal government has maintained that all Canadians who want a vaccine will have access to one by the end of September.
However, the country’s closest allies have significantly out-paced Canada when it comes to vaccine roll-out.
By Sunday, the United States had administered 90.8 million vaccine doses and had fully vaccinated 9.37 per cent of its population against the virus, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, had administered 22.8 million doses. To date, 1.64 per cent of its population has been fully inoculated.
Canada shuttered its borders to all non-essential travellers in March, and in the months since, additional measures have been imposed in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
The federal government has, for months, been urging Canadians not to travel unless absolutely necessary.
Asked about the country’s shared border with the United States during an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there are an “awful lot of different metrics” the government needs to consider when it comes to deciding when to reopen.
“Obviously case counts, presence of variants, hospitalizations — all these things factor into the expert analysis,” he said. “Our public health experts telling us what the right measures are and how concerned we have to be about variants.”
Trudeau said his government will “continue to engage with the White House and with the administration on the best times to start releasing border measures.”
“But for now, we all need to keep safe, and that means keeping them in place,” the prime minister said.
According to Bowman, the use of such COVID-19 vaccine passports, at least in terms of border crossings and travel, would be “inevitable” even should Canada choose not to implement it now on a federal or provincial level.
He also expects that “market forces” would eventually pick up the use of such passports for use in restaurants, sporting events and so forth — potentially excluding people who can’t get the vaccine furthermore.
According to Bowman, the issue of privacy would also have to be taken into account should vaccine passports be used.
“My understanding is they’re going to be digital and there’s going to be an element of tracking with that and surveillance to it,” said Bowman, who raised the question of who would use or keep the data you’re presenting in your passport should one choose to enter public areas like restaurants or bars.
“I’m guessing right now our government is — other than travel — does not want to buy into this, and I can understand why because it’s very complicated in a democratic society.”