As access to the COVID-19 vaccine continues to expand rapidly, the end of careful quarantining – and a new beginning for travel and events – feels closer than ever.

While this is good news for the businesses and travel destinations that have suffered the greatest losses over the last year, new questions have already begun to pop up regarding the protocols and safety mechanisms that will be necessary to minimize COVID-19 transmission as travel and events start to resume.

At the center of this next wave of debate: The vaccine passport. From a public health perspective, vaccine passports would greatly reduce the potential for unvaccinated individuals to spread the virus and jeopardize efforts to reach herd immunity. At the same time, management and verification of private health information (PHI) opens the door to a new set of data privacy concerns.

A true vaccine passport initiative would be interoperable on a global scale – spanning hundreds of countries and dozens of industries. The closest example of an identity project of this magnitude is today’s global passport system, which took more than 50 years to develop, and remains reliant on printed documents.

Creating a modern, digital vaccine passport solution will have challenges, starting with the need for privacy and protection of personal health information (PHI). And, there will also be usability and accessibility challenges to overcome as well. While past passport and credential efforts may not offer a perfect template to follow, the lessons learned from those projects can still serve as valuable best practices as modern vaccine passport initiatives pick up steam. Let’s take a closer look at two critical lessons:

  1. Balancing fraud protection and ease-of-use.

For decades, travelers received signed and stamped “yellow cards” when they traveled to and from certain countries to prove they had been vaccinated against highly communicable diseases, such as yellow fever and cholera. This paper process relied on stamps and signatures from physicians and patients to verify identity and validate vaccination. While this paper-driven process makes it easy to create valid vaccine records at the point of vaccination, it could be prone to fraud if used as the foundation for a COVID-19 vaccine passport effort.

In order to verify user identity and maximize public trust, proven digital identity and digital signature technologies will need to be used as the foundation for a modern vaccine passport solution. In addition to securing the validation process, the ability to quickly scan a digital QR code from a mobile phone would also help speed verification at ports of entry and departure, compared to complicated paper trails.

  1. Achieving widespread accessibility and interoperability.

Today, more than a billion people worldwide are unable to prove their identity using traditional physical IDs, such as passports, birth certificates and driver licenses. Moving to a mobile-based vaccine passport strategy has the potential to create even greater accessibility gaps. Any viable vaccine passport solution will need to incorporate both mobile-based and smart card-based solutions to ensure every user who wants access to a vaccine passport can get one.

From a validation standpoint, each vaccine passport solution that enters the market will also need to be universally recognized and scannable across countries and industries to ensure citizens can come and go as they please. Without this capability, a vaccine passport isn’t really a passport at all. In an effort to speed the rollout process, leveraging the validation technology and infrastructure already available in existing systems – such as the global passport system – may offer one way to increase the likelihood of interoperability.

The good news is the technology and infrastructure already exist to make a secure, accessible vaccine passport a reality. It’s now up to each of the incoming vaccine passport solutions to learn from past credentialing challenges and apply the right digital identity solutions to solve them.

This blog is the first in a three-part series titled “Trusted Vaccine Passports: Restoring a World in Motion.” In the next blog, we will explore the vaccine passport solutions currently in development and what a seamless, end-to-end vaccine credentialing process could look like.