Just over 27 million people in the US have gotten at least one dose of their vaccine and it is expected that tens of millions more will continue to do so in the coming weeks and months. This begs the questions: What will travel be like when more people are vaccinated? And, will you need an immunity passport to fly on airlines, either domestically or internationally? We'll go over what's being talked about at the moment and what you might expect this year when it comes to travel.
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What Are Immunity Passports?
If you've traveled to parts of Asia or Africa you're likely familiar with the World Health Organization "yellow book". This book is used to keep track of your vaccines for say, yellow fever or typhoid. Some countries require that you show proof of certain vaccines upon arrival into their country.
Health experts are considering the same type of immunity proof as it relates to getting one of the vaccines, or perhaps if you already have antibodies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already provides a vaccination card that tells you key facts about your inoculation, including the date you received the vaccine and the type you received. President Biden has stated that he is "assessing the feasibility" of using the same type of immunity proof for pandemic travel, perhaps as a digital card rather than a paper document or as a passport book along other vaccinations you've received.
The U.S. already requires passengers to show proof of a recent negative test (or recent recovery for the virus) to enter from out of the country, and officials are considering it for domestic travel. An immunity passport, however, would operate a little differently: more on that below.
How Are Immunity Passports Different from Testing Proof?
If you've traveled abroad or to certain US states (for example, Alaska) in the past several months you would likely have had to show proof of negative test, typically within the last 72 hours. In many cases, you may have also had to quarantine for a number of days.
Of course, all of this has been intended to stop the spread and ensure countries are doing everything they can to mitigate the risk of worsening the pandemic. Many countries have outright banned travelers who are not citizens or permanent residents of that particular country.
All of these processes were quickly put in place and all were prior to an effective vaccine being developed. The hope is now that the world population can shift from testing and quarantining to vaccines, and that vaccine proof will be able to replace testing and quarantine requirements.
Enter Immunity Passports, A Potential Alternative to Testing and Quarantine
The World Health Organization (WHO) is discussing the type of standardization that could be needed to prove that someone has been vaccinated. In late November, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced it was developing the IATA Travel Pass, a digital health pass that will include a traveler’s test and vaccination certificates.
Several countries have also kicked around the idea of an “immunity passport,” which would essentially allow you to skip quarantine if you can show proof that you’ve already been infected. Some countries heavily reliant on tourism, such as Iceland and Hungary, are considering this model.
But this approach also presents certain risks due to the virus' unpredictable nature. It is unclear how effective having antibodies is and whether it protects both the person and others. In the coming weeks, there should be a better understanding of how effective antibodies and the vaccine are to stopping the spread.
There Are Concerns Over Vaccine Requirements and Fraud
Some have expressed their concerns with this approach due to the possibility of vaccine fraud.
If having an up-to-date vaccine becomes a requirement for, say, business travel or tourism, it is possible that there may be fraudulent activity related to a black market for vaccine proof.
Gina DeWitt, of Roseville, California, expressed concerns about vaccine fraud. “If the vaccine were [a requirement] to be able to travel,” DeWitt said, “there would be more fraudulent vaccine paperwork being sold on the black market.”
Travel Procedure and Masks Will Likely Not Go Away For Some Time
If you think that once you have the vaccine, "normal" flying will return, think again. It is almost certain airlines will continue the safety procedures they've adopted, such as mask wearing, for some time.
The main issue at hand is vaccine distribution. Never in history have so many people needed something in such a short time. It's a major logistical effort not only for the US but for every country around the world.
Conclusion: Immunity Passport In Some Form Is Likely Coming In a Few Months
Airlines and countries will most certainly adopt some form of "immunity passport" that will minimize transmission risk. The question is what will this look like: A piece of paper like the traditional "yellow book", an electronic document that is on your phone, an international database, or a combination of these 3. These options are being discussed, but of course, ensuring that proof is authentic and data is secure are some of the highest priorities. We'll keep you posted as this evolves, but progress toward safer travel is coming in 2021.
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