BY MAGDALENA OSUMI, STAFF WRITER
With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout gearing up across the globe, expectations are rising for the restart of international travel. And so that travelers can move safely from one country to another without spreading the virus, Japan and other nations are looking to introduce a system of vaccine passports.
On Tuesday, the European Commission proposed a Digital Green Certificate system that will show if a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19. The U.S. and the U.K. are also looking into similar systems.
But with delayed vaccine rollouts and uncertainties about problems that might emerge once a global vaccine passport system is in place, Japan remains cautious about this approach.
“If it becomes necessary internationally, we would need to consider the option,” Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the nation’s inoculation program, said Monday during a parliamentary session.
With more than 335 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered worldwide, various countries have proposed or already introduced a system of vaccine passports that would work as official proof that the holder has already been inoculated.
If the passport shows that the holder has been vaccinated, he or she will be able to enter another country without going through quarantine, undergoing COVID-19 testing or facing other travel restrictions.
This would enable people to travel, helping to reboot the economy, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, including the tourism industry and airlines.
The concept of a vaccine passport isn’t new, though.
Such proof-of-immunization programs have been used to document vaccinations against diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, typhus and rubella and have been overseen by the World Health Organization.
The certificate helped prevent the spread of smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s amid the rapid expansion of air travel. The disease was removed from vaccination requirements for travel in 1981 after smallpox was successfully eradicated.
The paper-based certificate, which is currently known as the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), or Yellow Card, is recognized internationally and is valid for vaccines or prophylaxis approved by the organization. Some countries still require such an official record for entrance if there are increased health risks for travelers.
But there is no coordinated international vaccine passport system in place at the moment, as countries have yet to reach a consensus on how such passports should be used.
However, some countries have introduced certification programs to offer proof of vaccination when traveling internationally, or introduced relaxed border control measures based on mutual agreements.
Israel’s ‘green pass’
Progress toward the implementation of vaccine certificates is particularly visible in countries with fast vaccination rollouts, offering a glimpse of what the system would be like.
Israel, which has administered vaccination doses to roughly half of its 9 million population, in February introduced a so-called green pass, which can be obtained through a smartphone app or the health ministry’s website.
The certificate shows whether people have been fully inoculated against the coronavirus or if they have presumed immunity after contracting COVID-19. But the use of the green pass, which is only available in Hebrew, is limited. Currently, about a dozen countries including some European Union states and Thailand are reportedly preparing to recognize Israel’s certificates.
Meanwhile in Asia, so far only China has begun issuing digital vaccination certificates for its citizens planning to travel abroad, and it relaxed its visa procedures for travelers who have received Chinese COVID-19 vaccines and obtained the vaccination certificate, starting March 8. Thailand, which has backed a similar proposal, is also moving closer to issuing vaccine certificates.
Some countries in the European Union have issued their own certificate systems and are negotiating over the mutual recognition of such programs, with an eye on having them recognized across the bloc.
Japan’s vaccine rollout minister Kono has said that the nation could start issuing such certificates for those who have been vaccinated if such demand increases internationally.
But Japan has consistently been opposed to installing a system domestically out of concern that doing so would discriminate against those who cannot be inoculated, for example those with allergies. Domestic certification would allow holders, for instance, to attend concerts and sporting events.
Kono’s remarks come amid growing calls for vaccine passports from business lobby groups, who are pushing for them to get the economy going. But given that the vaccine rollout for the general population hasn’t started yet, it remains unclear when Japan might introduce its own vaccine certification system.
As the debate on vaccine certificates for overseas travel heats up, there are increasing expectations that Japan will also recognize vaccine certifications issued overseas and will exempt holders from its entry bans.
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a news conference Friday that Japan has no plans to ease travel restrictions for travelers with vaccine certificates issued overseas.
“We will closely monitor the discussions and situations in various countries,” Kato said.
The U.K. is reportedly planning to use its presidency of the Group of Seven to push for the establishment of a single global vaccine passport program in cooperation with the WHO and other group members.
But such proposals have already prompted calls for caution from human rights groups, who worry that such a system will mean privileged treatment for those who have better access to vaccines.
Digital vaccine passports also pose questions about data privacy, with some concerned that sensitive personal health information could create a divide between individuals based on their health status, with this information determining the freedoms they enjoy.
Health experts say it would be premature to establish such a system amid uncertainties about the impact of vaccines. So far, COVID-19 vaccines are said to prevent those infected from developing more severe symptoms, but it is unclear how effective they are in preventing the virus from spreading.
The WHO has said that authorities should not require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry, “given that there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission.”
The global health body also recommends that vaccinated people should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures.
While Japan, which has a limited amount of vaccines at present, hasn’t been eager to introduce digital vaccine passports for international travel, in a recent report the Nomura Research Institute suggested that the country should draft such a system.
“Otherwise, Japan, which is already lagging behind other countries in its vaccine rollout, may lag behind other countries on vaccine certification,” the report said. “That could further delay the economy and social activities from returning back to normal.”