What Is a COVID-19 Immunity Passport—And Who Gets One?

An immunity passport can prove a person has been vaccinated and might give people more freedom about gathering in public places and traveling during tight COVID-19 restrictions.

After COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out across the US at the end of 2020, discussion turned to whether some type of vaccination or immunity "passport" might be required.

The idea is that with the vaccine being widely available, a passport would be issued to people who have been vaccinated. In theory, the passport would allow people to move more freely, both locally and globally, by giving holders access to indoor restaurants, movie theaters, and international travel when COVID-19 regulations are at their strictest.

Many countries have required proof of COVID-19 vaccination and/or a negative COVID-19 test to allow international travelers to enter their borders. For anyone thinking about traveling abroad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends making sure you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines and checking your destination's COVID-19 situation and travel requirements before your trip.

A Vaccine Passport Is Nothing New

Some countries already require immunization certificates for diseases like polio and yellow fever to prevent global spread. And decades ago, international travelers carried "International Certificates of Vaccination" approved by the World Health Organization and sponsored by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare Public Health Services.

"It worked well—travelers carried the record with them and used it to enter countries that required proof of immunizations," former hospital CEO, health care advisor, and biomedical ethicist Michael Hunn told Health.

Immunization Passport Benefits Are Pretty Clear

Basically, a vaccine or immunization passport is a quick and easy way to prove you've been vaccinated—and not necessarily just against COVID-19, but other diseases as well. Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, told Health, "Those who are not vaccinated may have to undergo testing or a quarantine when they travel internationally, while those who were vaccinated may have a simpler entry mechanism."

Hunn agreed. "As states, countries, and governments come to grips with new and evolving viruses and diseases, having a safe, secure, accessible, and coordinated record of immunizations appears to make sense," said Hunn. "The advantages are absolutely clear: For the ongoing health and safety of individuals and countries, the verification of immunizations against diseases (including COVID-19) is critical."

What About COVID-19 Vaccine Passport Apps?

These apps generate a lot of talk, and each state is free to take its own approach to this issue. Some states like Alabama have passed laws banning vaccine passports, while other states like California have a website where people can get a digital copy of their COVID-19 vaccination record.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade association that represents 290 airlines worldwide, developed a digital vaccine passport for travelers, but it is available only for certain airlines. The IATA Travel Pass lets travelers share their vaccination status and COVID-19 test results with airlines and border authorities via a contactless passport app.

The International Chamber of Commerce developed an app called AOKpass. The ICC describes it as "a scalable solution that enables governments and border authorities to reopen cross border travel safely and efficiently." Companies can also use AOKpass to help keep employees safe.

Passport or Not, Immunization Records Are Crucial

A record of immunization has other benefits besides foreign travel. "It will help to ensure accuracy of dates for any future booster vaccinations or the ability to notify vaccine recipients of any discovered negative effects over decades," said Hunn.

A CDC COVID-19 vaccination card is issued to people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the US. Unlike a vaccination record that shows all vaccines you received, the COVID-19 vaccination card shows only information about your COVID-19 vaccine: which vaccine you received, the date you received it, and where you received it.

However, these paper documents aren't the same as a "passport" to be used for international travel or to gain entry to bars and restaurants. Nonetheless, proof of vaccination, whether against COVID-19 or another infectious disease, helps protect public health and guide decision-making in patient care.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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