As more countries around the world start COVID-19 vaccinations, talks about “vaccine passports” have also gone louder. Some say it can stimulate economic recovery, with those vaccinated can now travel internationally; some argue it would lead to dangerous scams and widen social inequality.
With coronavirus still largely a mystery and the current vaccines manufactured and distributed have yet to fully prove their efficacy, there are doubts that issuing vaccine passports and using them to enter a foreign country can do more good than harm.
Vietnam, which is currently battling a third wave of local infections and has so far brought the situation under control, started its vaccination program on March 8. The country has already inoculated nearly 1000 frontline workers, according to a March 11 data from the Ministry of Health. After piloting the program in three of the most affected cities — Hai Duong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — several localities such as Danang, Hai Phong and Bac Ninh have also begun inoculating their health workers. The country’s death toll remains at 35; it’s last COVID-19 death was on September 3, an 83-year-old man.
The country has maintained its status as one of the safest places since the pandemic started, and it’s not keeping its guards down yet.
Vietnam’s health experts said vaccinated foreigners holding vaccine passports should still undergo a 14-day quarantine and test negative for the virus at least twice after entering Vietnam’s international ports.
Tran Dac Phu, former head of the General Department of Preventive Medicine and senior expert of the Việt Nam Public Health Emergency Operation Centre said the country has not made any changes in its health measures for foreigners and returning Vietnamese entering the country during the pandemic, even those presenting valid vaccine passports.
Phu added that while the WHO-approved vaccines are currently the most effective response to the spread of the coronavirus, it’s effect remains unclear, especially with the emergence of new variants proven to be more contagious.
"Different vaccines will have different protective effects and it remains unknown how long antibodies against the novel coronavirus would exist in the body of a person already vaccinated," Phu told VnExpress. “When the strain of the virus changes, the COVID-19 vaccine might no longer work,” he said.
Just this week, Vietnamese doctor Calvin Q Trinh arrived in Vietnam from the US on a repatriation flight for Vietnamese returnees. He already got two doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna, as stated in his vaccine passport. But he was not allowed to go freely from the airport to his home; instead, he was mandated to quarantine at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for 14 days.
A vaccine passport, which may come as digital, an app or a physical document, bears proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. There’s no proper system for this yet, but when this gets legal approval, it can be used to board an airplane, visit a restaurant, join large events or gain entry into a country and be allowed to roam freely. Or at least, that’s what it should be used for.
This is not the first time the world heard of (or used) a vaccine passport. Decades ago, travelers had to carry a booklet with stamps indicating they are safe from cholera, yellow fever and smallpox. After it was declared that the world was relatively free of smallpox, the use of vaccination certificates slowly died, too.
But coronavirus is different. The vaccines used to fight it are different, too (while vaccines for other diseases took years to make and underwent several tests to prove efficacy, COVID-19 vaccines were manufactured, distributed and used in less than one year). Scientists expressed that the protection coronavirus vaccines offer is very far from complete. Moreover, the number of vaccines are limited — only very few have started mass inoculations; many are still waiting for vaccines from COVAX. Requiring a vaccine passport will likely be seen as discrimination, and will create a wider gap between high-income and low-income countries.
Although, proponents of this idea argue that requiring such would actually encourage people to get vaccinated.
China, which aims to inoculate 560 million people by the end of June, is among the first in the world to issue a vaccine passport, available in both digital and paper formats. It is seen to promote economic recovery and facilitate international travel, but there’s no guarantee that the passport would be recognized by other countries. Israel and Bahrain have rolled out similar forms to their vaccinated citizens.
Countries such as Sweden, Denmark are also working on developing their own health passports. The US and the UK are also discussing the feasibility of issuing digital vaccine passports. Members of the International Air Travel Association also signed up for petitions to create a travel pass.
A civil liberty organization in the UK said that the countless suggestions for versions of the immunity passports (from being strictly used for international travel to using QR codes that would be uniform and recognized across continents) have missed one thing: “it’s impossible to have immunity passports which do not result in human rights abuses”.
Even the World Health Organization is not too keen on vaccine passports. A statement from WHO reads, “At the present time, do not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines. Proof of vaccination should not exempt international travellers from complying with other travel risk reduction measures.”
The issue of fake documents and scam are also on the table. Anyone who has a sophisticated machine and has the talent to forge documents can make their own vaccine passports and sell them on the black market. This has happened too many times before — not just for vaccines — to be shrugged off. Because of the absence of a system and a whole set of laws that are recognized by all countries, it is hard to detect counterfeits.
Not ready to reopen
Last week, tourism experts in Vietnam urged the government to reopen to international travelers in the second half of the year. With only 3.8 million foreign guests in 2020, travel agencies in the country have been struggling to keep businesses afloat. The scarcity of inbound travelers have forced nearly one-fifth of accommodations to close permanently and at some 340 tour operators to withdraw their business certificates.
Vietnam Tourism Association said the country should allow vaccinated foreign visitors by July for the tourism industry to bounce back. Tour operators were hoping that through vaccine passports, visitors would be able to enter the country with only few restrictions — no quarantine requirement or at least lesser isolation days.
“What keeps people from traveling to Vietnam or to any foreign country, aside from the fact that they are scared of the coronavirus, is that they do not have the luxury of time and money to get quarantined for 14 days. Most holidaymakers spend not more than a week on a destination. Nobody wants to stay inside a closed hotel room or quarantine facility for 14 days; people want to explore, to go to the beach or to the mountains and meet people,” said a marketing executive at a travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam has shut its international borders since March last year. It has also stopped issuing visas, except for diplomats, those with official business and high-skilled workers. Even these groups are required to quarantine for two weeks and undergo medical tests.
The government has not announced any specific reopening plan yet. Officials said the country needs more time to finalize policies for foreign entries. While international visitors are imperative to the tourism industry’s recovery, Vietnam’s main priority is the safety of its citizens.