December 4, 2020
Are You Going to Get the Needle?
The Next Battleground… Immunity Passports
Let’s say that in a few months (I hope not “years”), we’ll be able to fly somewhere far away without feeling like we’re playing a germ version of Frogger, dodging invisible disease particles like an arcade frog crossing a busy road.
But there’s a catch… You’re probably not boarding a plane to fly internationally without a vaccination for COVID-19.
Late last month, the head of Australian airline Qantas said that air travelers will need to show evidence that they’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine before they board a Qantas flight. And other airlines aren’t far behind…
They’re a step ahead of countries – at least those that believe in science – that will undoubtedly require visitors to show they’ve been vaccinated. (And how can you prove that you’ve been immunized without nosy governments or companies harvesting your health data? More on that below… )
And it won’t just be for airplanes. Soon you might need to show you’ve been vaccinated before you can go to a ball game, visit the acupuncturist, hang out at the mall, get a tattoo, see a movie, or quaff a Guinness at the local pub.
Some people will sputter in righteous indignation… They can’t force me to do anything I don’t want to! Where’s my gun?
Vaccines – including, soon, the COVID-19 vaccine – are a taken-for-granted hallmark of the modern world and the triumph of biotechnology. And they’re part of the fiber of civilized living.
If you want your kid to go to a public school in New York City, he has to get immunized against chicken pox, polio, tetanus, hepatitis B, and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). The U.S. military requires troops to be vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A, and other diseases. Workers at health care facilities in some states have to get shots for MMR, pertussis, and chicken pox. Get posted somewhere tropical and mosquito-y for the U.S. Foreign Service, and you’ll spend a morning impersonating a pincushion before you go anywhere.
Is it up to airlines to make public health policy, though? Airlines require you to fasten your seat belt. You can resist, of course – but chances are you won’t be welcome on that airline again. Unlike, say, owning a closet full of assault weapons, the Bill of Rights didn’t anticipate air travel. People who don’t feel like following the rules for air travel can get their own plane, or drive, or walk, or take a slow boat.
Want to travel abroad? Around 105 countries have a national vaccination mandate that requires at least one vaccine, according to recent research in the aptly named academic journal Vaccine. Of those, nearly 60% impose penalties on people who don’t comply – usually in the form of a fine, or by prohibiting unvaccinated children from going to school.
Countries that require their own citizens to be vaccinated don’t look kindly on unvaccinated foreigners entering their country. (A lot of countries – and, as of a few weeks ago, Hawaii – require passengers to present a negative COVID-19 test before they board a plane to visit.) Depending on where you’re going – and how closely bored passport control officers scrutinize your paperwork – you might have to show at the border that you’ve been immunized, with a little booklet like mine below.
Why the big deal over vaccines? It’s easy to forget that they’re an extraordinary scientific advancement in public health that’s dramatically improved the quality life of billions of people. As Vaccine explains…
Vaccination programs are one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions ever developed. Vaccination against four diseases (diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles) prevents an estimated two to three million deaths among children under five years of age worldwide each year… in the U.S. alone, over the past century, vaccines against seven previously common childhood diseases have prevented an estimated 103 million cases.
So, once you have the opportunity, are you going to get the shot?
As of early October, according to an international survey by pollster Ipsos, 73% of adults said they would. Of the 15 countries surveyed, Americans were the second-least eager, with just 64% of people saying they’d get the shot. (The French were even more reluctant, at 54%.) People in India – the country with the second-most cases of the coronavirus – are at the other end of the extreme, with 87% of respondents saying they’d take the needle.
But vaccine enthusiasm is declining… In August, 77% of respondents (versus 73% in October) said they’d get immunized for COVID-19 if a vaccination was available (in the U.S., it was 67% in August). Like their feelings might evolve about a cold shower or broccoli for dinner, people are getting cautious as a COVID-19 vaccine moves from the unicorn dream (I can go to restaurants and shake hands and sneeze without fear of killing other people!) to the grim reality of getting pricked (That’s a mighty big needle, Nurse Ratched… wait, side effects?).
And what happens when people actually face the needle-punctures-skin moment? Eager-to-please poll respondents might feel pressure to say that of course they’d get the shot… it’s the right thing to do, right? This may be the mirror-image polling problem of Trump voters who feel too ashamed to admit their voting preferences to pollsters – but aren’t shy about their preferences when they mail that ballot.
Of the no-vaccine-for-me gang, there are some hard-core anti-vaxxers, who dismiss the benefits of immunizations despite decades of research, evidence, and public health practice… say, your (former) Facebook friend who rants about George Soros plotting to implant a chip in your arm.
But there’s another group, which the Financial Times calls the “COVID anti-vaxxers,” that’s a different animal…
[Their] rationale is quite different [from conventional anti-vaxxers]… Some have long put their trust in science, including vaccines and all sorts of other institutional processes. Some would in other circumstances happily take the vaccine, just not necessarily on this occasion.
This erring on the side of caution relates mostly to concerns that the vaccine’s swift turnaround may have led to accidental oversights on safety and still unknown side-effects.
Looking past the issue of whether people will actually line up for a vaccine that’s had less testing than rice cookers rated in the latest issue of Consumer Reports is the question of the proof of immunization. (My vaccination certificate in the photo above is hopelessly analog in a very digital world.) If contact tracing and movement tracking were the answers to combatting the coronavirus in 2020, immunity passports might be on next year’s Jeopardy.
An immunity passport – the way that you show you’ve been immunized – could take the form of a wristband, a phone app, a certificate, or any number of other options. One potential entry is from the International Air Transport Association, which says it’s developing a “Travel Pass” with which travelers could present their COVID-19 test results or vaccination certificate for travel approval.
It’s good news for the folks who don’t like wearing face masks, who feel lockdowns carry the whiff of fascist communism (or whatever), and won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine because it’s all a hoax anyway… because soon they’ll have a new cause. They’ll protest immunity passports.
On the surface, they may have a small point because if left unchecked, immunity passports do pose some ethical concerns. But they’re worth the trouble, as a recent article in medical journal the Lancet explains…
Lockdown measures considerably curtail people’s freedom. Immunity passports would potentially allow some proportion of the population to access more freedoms during lockdown periods. It is unethical to restrict freedom unless there is a real risk to other people. If we have the technology to decide who is not a risk, we should use it…
The choice is not between returning to a normal life versus issuing immunity passports. Instead, the choice is between periodic lockdowns, attempting to emerge from lockdowns with immunity passports, and attempting to emerge from lockdowns without immunity passports. Immunity passports are a potentially valuable and ethical tool.
And what about privacy? It’s a knotty problem. I need to be able to prove that I have received a vaccine. You need to know that I am who I say I am. You need to know that my evidence is real. But I don’t want to reveal any more information about myself than what is absolutely necessary.
My friend and colleague Eric Wade, who is the editor of cryptocurrency publication Crypto Capital, summed it up like this, “How can I tell you what you need to know without telling you anything you don’t need to know, and without risking the data itself?”
One answer is blockchain, which is the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Blockchain is something like – to hopelessly simplify a not-simple notion – a giant Excel spreadsheet that shows the complete transaction history and location of a particular crypto.
It can also track data… say, the path of a melon… from the farm where it was grown all the way to the Kroger fruit section. It’s the master key for art forgeries… Put a masterpiece on the blockchain, and you can track ownership of the real thing – and anything that’s not there isn’t a masterpiece.
One crypto that’s trying to meet the challenge is called Civic, which is developing a way to verify an individual’s health status without compromising privacy. A few weeks ago, Eric spoke with Civic founder Vinny Lingham, who explained…
When the vaccine comes out, you can take your health credentials and prove you’ve had a vaccine and put it on a device and use it globally, anywhere in the world. It’s going to connect to a network and prove that you’ve had the vaccine…
… how do you prove what vaccine you had and allow you to move freely in the world? So the medical health passport business is about to explode in the next year or so, and you’re going to need an app that can store this data. You’re not going to walk around with printed medical records when you need to cross a border. They’re going to want to scan a device and prove that you’ve had the vaccine and then it’s linked to your identity.
I’m tired of virus Frogger. Bring on the vaccine… and whatever else it takes.
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With P.J. O’Rourke
and American Consequences Editorial Staff
December 4, 2020