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Race for COVID-19 vaccine passports is on. Will Canada be left in the dust?

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WATCH: Will you need a vaccine passport? – Mar 4, 2021

The race to roll out vaccination passports is heating up and the European Union is building the momentum.

It’s developing a framework that will allow certificates from each individual European country to interoperate, smoothing out safe travel between the 27 bloc nations. And they want it in place soon — as soon as this summer.

Read more: Vaccine passports gain traction, but experts warn of ‘huge moral crisis in equity’

Ethical and logistical challenges lie ahead, but experts say it may soon become a reality regardless.

What might mean for Canadians? Experts aren’t quite sure.

“There’s a big cloud around how that passport will be seen outside the EU, and how the EU will deal with tourists from outside the EU,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

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“It could be a real mess.”

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How will it work?

Faced with a pandemic that has killed more than 900,000 and thrust the continent into its deepest recession, the EU’s “digital green pass” is designed to kick-start the tourism industry.

The pass would be stored on a smartphone and display proof that a person has been vaccinated or has recently received a negative COVID-19 test, enabling them to travel more freely between EU countries.

“The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said earlier this month.

EU countries agreed in January on the basic data requirements for the certificate and the package of measures is due to be adopted March 17.

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Von der Leyen has urged governments to work quickly on their individual certificates.

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

Tourism-reliant countries, like Spain and Greece, are leading the charge.

Greece has already prepared a protocol for summer tourism — well ahead of the EU’s overarching plan. It’s aiming to kick off its vital summer season by mid-May by requiring all travellers to provide proof of vaccination, proof of antibodies or a negative test. All tourists will be subject to random testing as well.

That’s where things get complicated, Furness said. The science behind COVID-19 vaccines still isn’t definitive. We know they are effective at preventing severe illness, but it’s not yet clear whether vaccinated people can be asymptomatic and still spread the virus.

“With the emergence of variants and the evolution of vaccines, the situation is dynamic… The passport would have to indicate what vaccine you had, how many doses, what version of that vaccine,” Furness said.

“What your so-called immunity passport actually says about you and your immunity and your risk month to month is going to be a head-scratcher. It’s going to have to be updatable, and I don’t know if the EU is prepared for that.”

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Challenges

Experts have long warned that vaccination passports would be an ethical and legal minefield.

Cognizant of the risks, EU officials have said its passport will include the holder’s wider medical history related to the virus, including test results and statements of recovery, to “avoid discrimination of citizens.”

But the vaccine is not yet available to everyone in the world, whether due to supply or cost. And some people don’t want it, for religious or other reasons.

“From a global point of view, vaccine passports are profoundly ethically problematic,” said Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto.

“Vaccine access is primarily, not exclusively, within Western, affluent nations right now. Many people in this world would not be able to travel simply because they don’t have access.”

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Read more: Proof of vaccination wades into ‘murky territory’ ethically, experts say

With digitization at the core of these passports, there will also be technical and logistical knots.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned that without digitization, paperwork checks will quickly become unworkable when travel does pick up. The industry body says documents for negative tests are already creating bottlenecks at airports, even at 10 per cent of pre-pandemic traffic.

That’s where Canada will hit a significant snag, Bowman said, since proof of documentation isn’t streamlined and varies by province and region.

“When you’re vaccinated in Canada right now, you’re not left with an app or code that can later be used in other ways, at least not widely,” he said.

“If suddenly we’re in a scramble to get vaccination passports for international travel, does Canada even have the infrastructure to do this? I don’t know.”

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Canada’s decentralized health system could stand in its own way, Furness added. Each province is responsible for keeping track of its own immunization records, so there is no national database.

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“We would have to find a way to synchronize that,” Furness said.

“The federal government doesn’t have a track record of being able to deliver any kind of integration in a reasonable time. So honestly, that could take years.”

Canada in ‘tough position’

It’s not clear whether the EU’s system would extend beyond European citizens.

Greece said it is willing to develop systems bilaterally with places outside the EU, like the U.K — a hint that countries may come up with their own solutions, which could benefit Canada.

Read more: Feds don’t intend to set ‘official date’ to lift all COVID-19 restrictions

“Canada is really in a tough position because if we have multiple systems emerging simultaneously, it’s going to be chaos,” Bowman said.

“There’s going to have to be some kind of standard.”

The EU Commission has expressed a desire to scale up the strategy globally, in co-operation with the World Health Organization. It has called on the WHO to develop an international standard for vaccine certificates and while it is being looked into, at least one of its officials has come out against the idea, saying the requirement might allow “inequity and unfairness (to) be further branded into the system.”

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Health Canada told Global News in an email on March 7 that it is aware some countries are considering “granting privileges to vaccinated people” through passports or certificates and that any consideration in the Canadian context would need more “reliable scientific evidence” around the concept and vaccines.

When asked specifically about whether Canada would consider developing a system in parallel with the EU, to ensure its citizens’ vaccination status would be recognized, the agency provided Global News with the same statement from March 7.

Global Affairs Canada, which handles Canada’s diplomatic relations and provides consular services, offered a similar statement but added that the government is “working in collaboration with international partners on this issue and continues to monitor develops in this area.”

“We continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada,” a spokesperson said.

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Read more: ‘Vaccine nationalism’ could see world economy lose trillions, OECD warns

But the EU’s efforts could force Canada’s hand, said Bowman.

Just last week, researchers for the Canadian Medical Association Journal wrote that vaccination passports are “imminent” for international travel.

Should Canada be without a parallel system when the EU’s rolls out, experts say it won’t be pretty.

“Our ministers tell us they’re on it. But how does Canada keep from falling out of the loop on this? That should be the priority,” Bowman said.

“This is not something we need to consider for 2024. This is going to be on top of us in no time.”

— with files from Reuters 

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