COVID-19 Vaccine Passports and the Debate Around Them

Published on: Apr 7, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
A symbolic COVID-19 health passport seen on a smartphone screen.Getty Images

With nearly 20% of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and restrictions easing across the country, states are trying to figure out how to kickstart events (like concerts and sports games) and reopen their economies without causing another surge in infections. Enter, vaccine passports. Spoiler: they aren’t the same as the now-dusty booklet you once used for vacation.

I’ve heard the term but what are they?

Vaccine passports are a form of proof that shows you’ve been vaccinated. They’re most likely to be available digitally (like an app on your smartphone). Think of it as a digital boarding pass for the fully vaccinated to live like it’s 2019.

And the concept isn’t new. It goes back as far as the 1800s when it was reportedly required in some cases for smallpox. And in the mid 20th century, the World Health Organization introduced a certification known as a “yellow card” for travelers to prove they’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever.

Today, certain countries (like Nigeria and Ghana) require travelers to get vaccinated against diseases like yellow fever before they enter the country. And every state requires students to have immunizations to attend schools (though some have exemptions). With the coronavirus pandemic, vaccine passports are gaining renewed interest. They’re seen as a way to not just restart the economy – but also as a way of rebuilding industries hit hard by the pandemic (like the travel industry).

Places like the EU and Japan have plans to roll out their own versions soon. Israel already launched one. And New York became the first US state to develop a vaccine passport, which can be used to get into sports games, concerts, and more. Also, the International Air Transport Association – which represents nearly 300 airlines around the world – is testing out its own travel pass, with the goal of providing “governments with the confidence to reopen borders without imposing quarantines on incoming travelers.” (Barbados will accept IATA's pass from people flying on Virgin Atlantic from London starting in mid-April, and Singapore will let people use it to enter starting in May.) But not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.

Why’s that?

Like many things in life, there’s debate around whether they’re beneficial or harmful. Let’s break down what experts say…

The pros
  • Getting back to normal life. Plain and simple: showing immunity against COVID-19 is key to help us get back to life as we knew it, according to some experts. It could help people prove they’re safe to work in critical jobs or make it possible for businesses like movie theaters or concert venues to reopen sooner. And President Biden said that vaccinations will help the country get back to a more normal place by July 4 (though he won’t issue a federal mandate on vaccine passports – more on that below).

  • Giving economies a boost. Requiring vaccine passports to travel may encourage more people to get vaccinated. And more travelers = good news for states and countries, especially for countries whose economies rely heavily on tourism (like the Maldives, Jamaica, and Thailand).

The cons
  • Privacy issues. The main concerns are how vaccine data will be protected, and whether companies would sell it to third parties. Security experts have reportedly warned that there are already scams involving fraudulent passes. PS: If you're wondering if the concept of vaccine passports violates HIPAA – the law that created national standards for protecting patients’ personal health info – it likely doesn’t.

  • Exacerbating inequalities. Many developed nations have started inoculating their citizens. But as of March, the People’s Vaccine Alliance said a number of developing countries haven’t administered a single COVID-19 vaccine dose. In the US, we’re also seeing racial disparities in who’s getting their shot(s). Meaning: vaccine passports would put certain groups at a disadvantage. Plus, making a digital passport leaves behind many people who don’t have or can’t afford smartphones (but some companies are working on a paper option to combat this).

  • Personal freedoms in question. Aka a big argument for many Republicans who are against vaccine passports. Some people may not want to get a COVID-19 vaccine for a number of reasons: religious beliefs, they don't trust it, etc. Meanwhile, the federal gov has stepped out of the ring when it comes to vaccine passports. The Biden admin said they won’t mandate it, and that it’ll be up to the private sector to build.

So far, states are split on how to proceed. New York’s app has already launched and Hawaii officials are looking into one for inter-island travel. But Florida and Texas have banned vaccine passports outright. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said they would “create two classes of citizens based on vaccinations.” And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said the government shouldn’t require people to “reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives.”

Also taking pause: the World Health Organization. In April, it said vaccine passports may not be an “effective strategy” for restarting travel. Its reasoning: vaccine equity issues (see: above), and because it’s still unclear whether the vaccine prevents transmission.


We’re entering a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic: the hopeful return to normal. And while things like vaccine passports are making people optimistic, it’s leaving others with more questions than before, especially when it comes to privacy, inequality, and personal freedom. In the meantime, stay up-to-date on COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions wherever you live or plan to travel to so you know what the best practices are. You can do that by Google searching ‘COVID-19 guidelines in [your state]’. 

Skimm'd by Maria Martinolich and Kamini Ramdeen

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