But a lot is going on behind the scenes to expand these uses, some very quickly. Governments, airlines, employers, universities and many other groups are intensely debating how and why people should submit verified health records.
Some of the terms used are confusing, like “vaccination passport”. In some scenarios, your records can function like a real passport – consider arriving at the airport in a new country, pulling out your smartphone, and scanning a digital record of your vaccination or negative test. But these records can also act as a work permit at your job or a pass to enter restaurants, bars, and shopping malls.
Proponents argue that digital health credentials could help us get back to “normal”, but there are many barriers to making these ideas a reality, both medically and technically.
Vaccination does not mean safety
Although several vaccines appear to be very effective in preventing symptoms of covid-19, we do not know if they prevent people from catching and spreading the virus asymptomatically. Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trials suggested that it might limit transmission asymptomatic carriers, but Pfizer and Moderna’s trials did not routinely test participants for the virus if they had no symptoms.
More data is needed to conclusively prove that vaccination prevents you from giving covid-19 to other people and how long the immunity lasts. It is also important to remember that what is true for one vaccine may not be true for another.
Without this crucial information, the vaccination records only prove that you received a vaccine on a certain date, not that you did not and cannot get the disease. Until then, a negative covid test is the best proof that you are not contagious. And since the tests are far from perfect, you should always follow public health advice on limiting the spread whenever you can.
Digital recordings help fight fake news
There is already a booming black market in false test results that lower confidence in printed materials and drive demand for cheat-proof digital materials.
Many governments, as well as airlines and other companies are trying or in talks to create “health passport” applications, which allow users to request participating laboratories and health systems to send reports. Authenticated test results and other data directly to the application, bypassing verification issues.
There are many players in the field, including IBM, the Commons project, and the Covid Credentials Initiative. They approach the problem from different angles, but ultimately pursue the same goal: to enable people to share necessary information about their health, while protecting other private information. Yet, it is still too early to count on any of them for a quick and widespread solution.
Connection of systems is very difficult
The makers of health passes are primarily focused on test results for now, but any of these technologies could work just as well for vaccine registries, if all systems worked together.
Unfortunately, that’s a much bigger challenge than signing deals with a few big test companies. Connecting all systems across borders means navigating a patchwork of languages, databases and privacy laws. Even in the UK, where the national health system maintains a database of vaccinees, the government has put talk about pending vaccine “passports”.