The Malta Independent 27 February 2021, Saturday

Rolling out immunity passports activates foreign travel

George M Mangion Sunday, 7 February 2021, 07:53 Last update: about 21 days ago

A local newspaper announced last week that a new Covid-19 passport will be rolled out for Maltese citizens to help them travel easier after being vaccinated. This statement came out with gusto during a press conference held by Prime Minister Robert Abela, Health Minister Chris Fearne and Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci.

All three speakers hoped that come summer the island dwellers will achieve “herd immunity” so the idea of an immunity passport to activate the inbound and outbound tourism became a new buzz word. Dr Fearne explained how the passport is a concept that authorities are discussing with other European countries.

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The idea is that by summer not only will there be many Maltese people who have taken the vaccine, but around Europe there will be millions who have been vaccinated and are immune. A related topic is “vaccine tourism”. This concept means visiting another country or state to get a vaccine not available to you at home.

Right now, vaccine tourism is all about the Covid-19 vaccine, which has had a slow rollout in some countries and isn't yet available worldwide. On the contrary countries with a good supply of vaccine doses are now actively preventing vaccine tourism. In the UK, for example, you can only get the vaccine when you're offered it through your doctor and you need to confirm your personal details, including address at your shot appointment.

A record of immunisation has other benefits to the patient besides foreign travel. This begs the question, should we continue to wear masks and keep our distance? Continuing to wear a face mask is important because of the new Covid variants that have been identified and especially those from South Africa as they are thought to be more infectious.

Trials discovered how they can spread more easily to more people if vaccinated people are able to transmit the virus and don't wear a mask. Both the Pfizer and Moderna trials tracked only how many vaccinated people became sick with Covid-19, meaning it is completely possible that some vaccinated people could subsequently get infected but not develop any symptoms.

Those people could then transmit the virus without being aware of it and the biggest risk is that they spread it to others who haven't been vaccinated, hence it is still advisable to wear masks. In Malta and other countries that bought the vaccine, some sectors of the population are getting priority, such as the elderly and health care workers. But in other countries with a slow rollout, people who don't fall into these groups have reportedly been jumping the line and travelling elsewhere for their shots.

Medical authorities warn us to continue to be diligent by saying that, although an effective vaccine is the first big step toward ending the coronavirus pandemic, our days of wearing face masks aren't over yet. While both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, we still don't know whether they prevent you from spreading the virus to other people. That's why experts strongly advise that everyone should still wear a mask and that includes anyone who has received the vaccine.

One may comment that the rate of inoculation started slowly in Europe but is now accelerating. Israel can be awarded the champion cup for jabbing almost 25% of its population. But, after a fast roll out of the vaccine, it is now important that countries will be careful not to give access to passengers who have no immunity.

Educating travellers to comply with the latest testing requirements to travel is vital to building consumer confidence. It is understandable that airlines, which suffered massive losses, will now require a coronavirus vaccine passport from all passengers to protect their industry. Some countries may also make vaccination a requirement for crossing their borders. It goes without saying that most governments have slid deeply in debt to help fund wage support for ailing hospitality, airlines and related industries.  

Logic tells us that such flailing industries cannot wait for the whole world to become Covid-19 immune in order to restart, as the economic losses that these sectors have faced are devastating. Thus going back to what Dr Fearne proposed it is a wise move for the airline and hotel industry to unite in accepting a standard immunity passport. It goes without saying that as the vaccine is becoming widely available, the passport would be issued to people who have been vaccinated to let them move more freely, both locally and globally.

The practice may even be useful for access to indoor restaurants, movie theatres and opera houses. Critics disagree with the scheme, saying that a vaccine passport, is not an "immunity passport".

This is because, it is still unclear how long immunity lasts after recovering from the virus or after receiving a vaccine and it is also unclear if recipients of Covid-19 vaccines can potentially carry and spread the virus without experiencing symptoms themselves.

Experts warn us that with a vaccine passport, holders still actually don't know, once they are vaccinated, whether they can get into an asymptomatic carrier state and transmit it just as easily as someone not vaccinated. This is a dilemma, which only time and testing will solve. Moving on, one meets with the stand taken by IATA (International Air Transport Association) to introduce a travel pass that lets travellers share their vaccination status and Covid-19 test results with airlines and border authorities, via a contactless passport app – a new global health passport that stores travellers’ Covid-19 test results and vaccination information. In simple terms this means users take a selfie, which will be matched with biometric passport data. Ideally this mechanism will eventually build confidence in governments that systematic pre-departure Covid-19 testing can work as a replacement for quarantine requirements.

A novel idea in this regard is the launch of a CommonPass. According to Cornell Koster of Virgin Atlantic this solution is an important step towards offering a common international standard. The App called CommonPass lets individuals demonstrate their Covid status. This will be shortly rolled out for passengers on flights from New York, Boston, London and Hong Kong; JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Hopefully Airmalta and MaltaAir will join the fray.

This electronic facility finds the support of The World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss non-profit group.

The dawn of open skies awaits travellers with authenticated immunity passports. 

 

The writer is a partner in PKF Malta, an audit and business advisory firm

 

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