Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

Smartphone with a vaccine passport on a table with a regular passport and a wallet

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

But building a system that everyone agrees with — and can access — is no small task. There are several companies working on competing projects to verify vaccinations. But beyond that, there are more than a few hurdles that could prevent vaccine passports from succeeding, from antiquated medical records systems to interoperability issues and privacy concerns. Here's how they could actually succeed.

Competing projects, similar standards

Pretty much since the first blockchain white paper, people have been looking for perfect examples of where a distributed, immutable ledger could be valuable. There's obviously the push to use it for currencies, and companies have tried to use it for things like tracking food production and voting, but there are few use cases that have truly taken off, at least so far. "We've been working on this since 2014; we never thought that health care would be the kind of the use case that we take this mainstream," Jamie Smith, the senior director of business development at Evernym, a company focused on using the blockchain as a basis for verifying identities, told Protocol.

Smith said Evernym had been discussing its concepts with automakers, retailers, telcos, governments, loyalty companies and banks prior to the pandemic. One of those companies was IAG, the airline group that owns British Airways, which had been interested in the idea of contactless travel based on a single identity credential that follows you from the airport check-in to your gate. With the pandemic, that morphed into thinking about ways to verify that passengers have had negative COVID tests, and eventually, that they've received a vaccine. "From our perspective, it was a really easy lift to see," Smith said. "We're doing contactless travel, and we just added verifiable credentials for test results."

It's a similar genesis for IBM's Digital Health Pass initiative, which leader Eric Piscini said started about two years ago as a way to store people's entire health records in a safe, accessible platform. It also relies on the blockchain for its immutable record of proof, and both Evernym and IBM are part of an open-standards group called the Good Health Pass Collaborative, which aims to bring private credentialed vaccine records to business and people around the world. Companies are working on their own implementations of the standards, but Evernym's Smith said the data is meant to be portable from one passport to another.

Most of the companies working on passports say their systems are private by design, especially given that they're mainly working off the same open standards. In most cases, the health information only ever remains on a user's phone, but where it asks to verify that the user's information meets a system's standards — such as whether this person has had two COVID vaccines and should be allowed into an office — that information is recorded on a blockchain. "You can, using blockchain technologies, verify that someone has been tested recently, without having access to the underlying data," Piscini said. "I don't know any other technology where you can do that."

Similarly, the nonprofit Commons Project's CommonPass, backed by the likes of Oracle, Microsoft and Salesforce, started out as a project to bring an analog to Apple Health for Android. JP Pollak, a senior researcher at Cornell and founder of the Commons Project, first launched CommonHealth to bring the sort of data and insights that Apple Health offers to iPhone owners to Android users. Last summer, the group started building an app that could take health data and privately share it with others — in that case, it was to help truckers stuck at the borders in East African countries who couldn't easily prove they'd taken COVID tests. This morphed into vaccine credentialing, with the group now working to pull together the various data streams needed to get a project like this off the ground.

"Health care institutions, EMR vendors, retail pharmacies, state vaccine registries, all issuing people a digital verifiable credential of their vaccination record that they could then use in the app of their choice, to be able to get access to various kinds of services," Pollak said. CommonPass is also working with the Mayo Clinic, as well as Epic Systems and Cerner, two of the largest EMR vendors.

Something for everyone

With so many competing efforts to become the world's digital vaccine passport, it might seem that the country is heading for some sort of VHS versus Betamax format war for proving everyone has had COVID vaccines. But given that so many of the efforts are using the same standards, and in many cases, looking to embed their tech in someone else's app rather than their own, the race might be less about the best tech winning, and more about various approaches working in different situations.

"The intent is not to be the only company; we don't want to be the proprietary platform that everybody has to use because they have no choice," IBM's Piscini said. "That's not who we are right now: That's the IBM from 30 years ago, not the IBM of today."

For IBM, though, the selling point is that the company already works with so many other massive companies. Why look elsewhere for a vaccine passport solution if your airline booking system is already powered by IBM? "We believe our network is going to be more valuable than any other because of our scale and our ability to integrate the platform with CRM systems, building systems or stadium systems — we can do that every day," Piscini said.

IATA's digital passport app.Photo: IATA

For other companies, it's about securing new partnerships with major players in the hopes of finding that scale. Evernym, for example, is working with International Air Transport Association, the airline industry's trade association, on an air travel-specific app called Travel Pass. IATA is working with airlines and local governments to ensure it has the latest requirements to feed the app's rules engine. "It will say, 'Hey, you're flying JFK to Heathrow, you need a PCR test 48 hours in advance before you can land,'" Evernym's Smith said. "And of course, those policy changes are changing every day." Qatar, Emirates and Etihad Airways are all expected to start trialing the app in the next few weeks.

In other instances, the technology will live inside other companies' existing apps; why make someone download yet another app and add another hurdle to compliance? Instead, the experience will be rather like adding a loyalty account or TSA PreCheck number when booking a flight. Airlines and other venues restricting access will require uploading negative test results or vaccine records using one of these services. "You're going to be using the United or the Delta app, and they'll be using our solution or somebody else's, but you will do it via their app," IATA's Travel Pass lead, Alan Murray Hayden, told Protocol.

The World Health Organization is also working on its own offering, and recently convened the Smart Vaccination Certificate Working Group. It's built upon the WHO's nearly century-old notion of the "yellow card" vaccination record, which first was used to document that travelers had been inoculated against diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. Evernym Chief Trust Officer Drummond Reed is part of the working group; he said there should be more to share in the coming months.

What could go wrong?

It's entirely possible that as more people start to get vaccinated, vaccine passports start to become the norm. You walk to work — still masked, of course — scan a QR code reader in the lobby, and are let in. You go out for lunch, and your loyalty card app has a discount for in-store shoppers verifying they're vaccinated. Your concert ticket is also tied to health pass information that you shared earlier in the day with Ticketmaster. But there are more than a few hurdles ahead of the companies rushing to turn these concepts into realities.

First off, there's the … reality … of the real world that any digital system has to contend with. For anyone without access to the internet, digital vaccine credentials will prove difficult to acquire, though all the companies Protocol spoke with said they would offer a paper-based QR code for people who don't have smartphones. But there's also the issue of having to corral so many different stakeholders into one system, especially when some health care providers are still reliant on antiquated database systems or even paper records. "The amount of inefficiency in the system is tremendous," IBM's Piscini said.

But in the U.S. at least, all vaccinators are required to report COVID-19 vaccines to their state. Piscini said that even for people who just received a paper copy of their vaccine records, systems like IBM's can likely link up to the state's immunization registry and allow people to import records to a vaccine passport.

How CommonPass's app shows your records. Image: CommonPass

And states are willing to help out, Pollak said, adding that CommonPass has started working with Hawaii to roll out its offering for would-be tourists. "We're seeing a lot of state governments stepping up and doing a really good job with this," Pollak said. "It would be surprising if there wasn't a coordinated federal effort very soon." That being said, while many countries around the world are committing to working on vaccine passports, getting a straight answer out of the U.S. government on what it's doing has proven difficult. The State Department, which maintains America's traditional, analogue passports, referred me to Homeland Security, which referred me to the White House. The acting director and chief of staff of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kei Koizumi, told Protocol that "OSTP can't discuss projects we are working on before they are publicly announced."

But even with systems in place at a federal level, there's still a fair amount of education that needs to happen before people will trust systems like these. "There's a substantial gap in understanding and knowledge of how these systems work, and people's views, in terms of who should get access to which data," Pollak said.

"We assume there's a Facebook Borg in the sky, monitoring every interaction," Smith said. "The emergence of verifiable credentials breaks down that mental model, where actually it becomes more like decentralized bits of paper that I can carry around, and no one's to know that I've been sharing this information."

"Our belief is that if you do the right thing, from a platform point of view, protecting your privacy, and giving you control and access to the platform to everybody who wants to use it," Piscini said. "I think those are very basic things that allow the core of the platform that we build to generate adoption by the individuals."

Even with a system that works, there may still be holdouts to this potential new normal. "Some people are saying, 'I will never get vaccinated,'" Piscini said, "and I don't know if the airlines are going to say, 'Well, maybe you will never fly again.'"

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