The Biden administration is under pressure from tech companies, airlines, and states for developing a federal standard for vaccine passports. Even as the policy could help catalyze economic recovery, it could also be used to discriminate against disadvantaged groups besides jeopardizing privacy according to commentators, politico.com reported.
Vaccine Passports Raise Ethical Issues For Biden Administration
Digital credentials providing proof the Covid-19 test results of persons and their vaccination status were widely being adopted as a tool for redesigning workplaces and to kickstart tourism and travel. New York State was in the process of trialing an “Excelsior Pass” to fast track the reopening of theaters and venues like Madison Square Garden. Hawai’i was developing a version that would allow visitors to bypass the state’s mandatory 10-day quarantine.
But there was a need to involve the Biden administration to avoid confusion, fraud and risk as also fairness concerns resulting from the use unreliable and unregulated tracking tools.
According to Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, some leadership from the federal government was needed as he noted that rapid, unchecked deployment could result in adoption of systems did not talk to one another.
According to the White House the government should not be storing data or issuing credentials. It has however, discussing with tech firms how a passport system might work. It had also asked for details regarding whether pharmacies and other establishments could provide the necessary data. The Department of Health and Human Services too had called for inputs of 25 federal agencies regarding the passports, and whether they would encourage use of such passports by their employees, according to sources familiar with the conversations cited by politico.com. According to the report, the national health technology office of the department declined comment.
White House Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said on Monday that the right way was that it be private, secure and with free access. Slavitt added it needed to be available digitally and on paper, and in multiple languages, and needed to be open source.
The passports are by no means a new idea, rather they had been discussed since early in the pandemic, when reopening of the economy was being discussed using antibody tests and accompanying apps. The idea was now being sought to be revived with vaccination numbers increasing and travel revival seen coming: A coalition of travel and aviation groups this month pushed for a federal standard, for speeding up a recovery and also called for vaccinations and testing while limiting disease spread.
According to Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, there was a role for the US government to set standards especially to ensure the interoperability of credentials or the ability to talk with other systems efficiently across borders.
However, the passports raised ethical and legal questions as to whether they could widen inequities that had been all to visible during the pandemic.
According to bioethicists and public health experts, digital credentialing could be used to discriminate against disadvantaged populations. According to the digital rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the use of smartphone-based verification to access public places would create a two-tiered system that barred people who could not work, shop or attend school as they did not have access to testing or a smartphone.
There was also the separate question about the ability of the fragile U.S. health tech infrastructure to handle the barrage of new apps tapping vaccine data.
According to Deanne Kasim, executive director at Change Healthcare, which was part of a consortium that included Microsoft and Salesforce working on standards and technology for passports, data troves containing records of immunization varied in quality across states and might be unable to process huge numbers of real-time queries about vaccination status.