Are Vaccine Passports Ethical? Yes, As Long As No One Is Left Behind

A digital health passport required by businesses and universities could help us get back to normal more quickly, one expert argues.

Photo by Lukas on Unsplash

"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.

Lawrence O. Gostin
Lawrence O. Gostin is University Professor, Georgetown University’s highest academic rank, and Founding O’Neill Chair in Global Health Law. He directs the World Health Organization Center on National and Global Health Law. Gostin is Professor of Medicine at Georgetown University and Professor of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. You can follow him on Twitter @lawrencegostin.
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