India is in the midst of its massive vaccination effort to immunize all adults in the population, with the number of second doses increasing. The “vaccination certificate” – digital proof of a successful vaccination – has thus become commonplace. While people who received only the first dose of the vaccine receive a provisional certificate, those who received both doses receive a final certificate. We analyze the status of vaccination certificates as mere proof of immunization and caution that they can in fact serve as potential vaccination passports.
At first glance, there seems to be a distinction between a vaccination certificate issued by CoWIN and a vaccination passport. However, digging deeper reveals puzzling conceptual overlaps. With a return to pre-pandemic activities underway, this is a timely investigation.
An article in The Lancet defined a vaccine passport as “a potential tool to record and share an individual’s immune status”. In other words, these so-called passports would allow access to an individual’s health data, including their vaccination status and Covid test results. The function of a vaccination passport is not limited to international travel alone and may be relevant for a range of activities, such as access to workplaces and restaurants. As a term, the “vaccine passport” is loaded with baggage, and as a result, nations around the world have been reluctant to use it.
Nonetheless, going beyond mere terminology, we recognize that the widespread use of vaccination certificates in India could potentially function as a true vaccination passport. Evidence of the same can be found in statements from the chair of the empowered group on immunization, who recognized universal interoperability and verifiability as key facets of the certification process.
Additionally, India’s commitment to global vaccine certificate standards does not inspire confidence. Careful review of WHO interim guidelines on smart vaccination certificates allows local governments to use the certificate for “health, work, education and travel purposes”, indicating potential for indiscriminate use certificates by municipal governments. These concerns are exacerbated by instances of inaccurate information in vaccine certificates issued by CoWIN.
Regulators should pay particular attention to the role of the “vaccine certificate” as an interoperable digital utility. The principle of interoperability in itself does not raise significant ethical or constitutional issues. However, it is the use of the digital certificate as a sine qua non for the provision of certain services that poses inherent challenges.
A working paper from the Center on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford sheds light on a variety of use cases that could potentially discriminate against individuals based on their vaccination status. These use cases range from restricting freedom of movement (people without vaccination certificates may be denied the right to travel to certain areas), hampering equitable access to education (inappropriate vaccination certificates may be used to deny admission of students to the physical premises of a university) and denial of access to private establishments such as hotels or shopping malls. Reports say vaccination certificates are already tied to passports for international travel and are becoming essential for domestic air travel in some states.