"Vaccine passports" are a system that requires proof of a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of engaging in activities that pose a risk of transmitted SARS-CoV-2. Digital Health Passes (DHPs) are typically a smartphone application with a code that verifies whether someone has been vaccinated.
Vaccine passports could very much be in our future. Many businesses are implementing or planning to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Colleges and universities have announced vaccine requirements for students, staff, and faculty. It may not be long before the private sector requires a vaccination card or image to attend an entertainment or sporting event, to travel, or even to dine or shop indoors, at least in some venues.
But it's unlikely the federal government or the states will launch DHPs, at least not in the near-term. President Biden announced the White House has no intention of requiring proof of vaccination. While no state has mandated DHPs, New York is piloting its Excelsior Pass on a voluntary basis, partnering with IBM. Other nations are not so hesitant. Israel's "Green Pass" has gotten the nation back to normal in record time. And various countries and regions are planning DHPs, including the European Union and the United Kingdom. Foreign airlines are likely to require proof of vaccination as a condition of flying internationally.
DHPs could emerge as a way to get us back to normal more quickly, but are they ethical? Let's start with the law. The US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has specifically said that employers have the legal right to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to work. Colleges and universities already require several vaccines for students living in dorms. Hospitals and nursing homes often mandate influenza vaccinations. And, of course, all states require childhood vaccinations for school attendance. Vaccine passports are lawful but are they ethical? The short answer is "yes" but only if we ensure no one is left behind.
Vaccine passports "don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus."
Why are vaccine passports ethical? Vaccines are a miracle of modern science, but they have become a political symbol, and a significant part of the population doesn't want to get a jab. The rare cases of blood clots associated with the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines have only created more distrust.
Most opposition to vaccine passports hinges on the claim that they infringe personal autonomy and liberty. But this argument misses the point. Of course, every competent adult has the right to make decisions that affect his or her own health and safety. But no one has a right to infringe on the rights of others, such as by exposing them to a potentially serious or deadly infectious disease. An individual can't claim the right to attend a crowded event mask-less and unvaccinated. This was once accepted across the political spectrum. Conservative economists called it an "externality," that is a person has no right to harm others. The U.S. has lost the tradition of the common good. We have become so focused on our own individual rights that we forget about our ethical obligations to our neighbors and to our community.
In fact, DHPs actually don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus.
DHPs also don't infringe on privacy. Again, everyone has the choice whether to show proof of vaccination. It isn't required. Moreover, DHPs may actually protect privacy because all they do is show whether or not you have been vaccinated. They don't disclose any other personal medical information. All of us actually have already had to show proof of vaccination as a condition of going to school. Thus, DHPs are well established in the United States.
But there is one ethical argument against DHPs that I find to be powerful, and that is equity. If we require proof of vaccination while doses are scarce, we will give the already privileged even more privilege. And that would be unconscionable. Thus, DHPs should not be implemented until everyone who wants a vaccine is able to get a vaccine. Equity isn't a side issue. It needs to be front and center.
As of today, all adults in the U.S. are eligible to get vaccinated, and President Biden has pledged that by the end of May there will be enough doses to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. It is a realistic promise. Once vaccines become plentiful, everyone should get their shot. All Food and Drug Administration authorized vaccines are highly safe and effective, even the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that the FDA has just put on pause.
Businesses have an economic incentive to require proof of vaccination. Very few of us would feel comfortable returning to our jobs, shops, theaters, or restaurants unless we feel safe. Businesses understand the duty to create safer places for work, recreation, and commerce.
One question has dominated national conversation since the pandemic began. "When will we get back to normal?" There is a deep human yearning to hug family and friends, see our work colleagues, recreate, and be entertained. One day we will have defeated this wily virus and get back to normal. But vaccine passports can help us get back to the things we love faster and more safely. As long as we don't leave anyone behind, using this miracle of modern science to make our lives better is both lawful and ethical.
Editor's Note: This op/ed is part of a "Big Question" series on the ethics of vaccine passports. Read the flip-side argument here.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.