Vaccine Passports Are a Premature Solution to A Challenging Problem

Vaccine passports, if required by businesses and universities, may give people a false sense of security, one expert cautions.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Vaccines are one of the greatest public health accomplishments of all time. For centuries, public health has relied on vaccinations to prevent and control disease outbreaks for a plethora of infectious scourges, with our crowning achievement being the successful eradication of smallpox.

The purpose of vaccine documentation is to provide proof of an individual's protection from either becoming infected or transmitting a vaccine-preventable disease. Vouching for these protections requires a firm knowledge about the epidemiology of the disease, as well as scientific knowledge concerning the efficacy of the vaccine. The vaccines we currently require be documented have met these tests; the vaccine for COVID-19 has not yet been proven to do so.

Let's acknowledge that the term "vaccine passport" is a poor choice of words. Passports are a legal travel document created by nations and governed by law for identification of the bearer to control entry and exit from nation states. They often serve as legal forms of identification and as a record of international travel. They are generally very sophisticated documents that have been created in a secure manner and may include a range of electronic and, in some cases, biometric measures such as fingerprints to ensure the holder is indeed who they say they are. Vaccine passports are medical documents used to document the vaccination status of an individual. They do not undergo the same level of administrative scrutiny and cannot be used to verify that the presenter is indeed the vaccinated individual. Some companies do have electronic methods to address concerns about verification; however, most people currently have paper records that can be easily falsified.

"Vaccine passports" as currently proposed risk giving people a false sense of security.

Successful disease control from vaccination programs relies on the ability to vaccinate at a level that prevents large-scale disease spread and the ability to rapidly identify the presence of disease outbreaks. It requires reliable, safe, and effective vaccines that are easily delivered in clinical and nonclinical settings. Keeping vaccination information as a part of the medical record, and even having a separate specialized vaccine record for personal use, is a time-honored tradition.

Keeping a vaccination record provides a method to keep track of the many shots one receives and serves as a visual reminder to help ensure the appropriate vaccine shot schedule is maintained for vaccines requiring multiple doses. The vaccine record, when combined with vaccine safety monitoring systems, serves as a mechanism to track adverse events to monitor and ensure the safety of vaccines as a consumer product. The record also serves as the official record of vaccination when required for administrative or legally prescribed purposes.

"Vaccine passports" as currently proposed risk giving people a false sense of security. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use, many of the essential questions remain unanswered. While we do know the current three vaccines are highly protective against severe disease and death, and there is some evidence that these vaccinations do reduce infections and virus transmission of SARS-CoV-2, we do not yet know the full degree to which this occurs.

For example, we know there have been some cases of people that have been infected in close proximity to getting their full vaccination and rare cases of breakthrough reinfections. A breakthrough infection in a restaurant is a challenge for contact tracing, but an outbreak from a movie theater exposure or a baseball game could spark a major outbreak at our current level of vaccination. Current CDC guidance recommends continued mask wearing in order to address these concerns.

We also do not yet know how long the protections will last and if or when a booster or revaccination is required. In effect, it is too soon to know. Should an annual booster shot be required, then a vaccine passport would require annual updating, a process more frequent than renewal of a driver's license.

We also know that the current SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating briskly. While the current approved vaccines have remained effective overall, there is evidence of some degree of degradation in vaccine effectiveness against some of the circulating strains. We also have sparse data on many of the other emerging strains of concern because we have not had the surveillance capacity in the U.S. to gain an adequate sense of how the virus is changing to fully align vaccine effectiveness with viral capabilities.

The risk of people misusing these "passports" is troubling. The potential for using these documents for hiring, firing or job limitation is a serious concern. Unvaccinated workers are at risk of this form of discrimination even from well-meaning employers or supervisors. Health insurers are prohibited by the Affordable Care Act from discriminating based on preexisting conditions, but they could probably charge a higher premium for unvaccinated individuals. There also is a risk of stigmatizing individuals who are not vaccinated or have left their vaccine documentation at home. Another concern: the opportunity to discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, using one's vaccination status as an excuse.

These "passports" are being discussed as a "ticket verification" for entry to many activities, including dining at restaurants, flying domestically and/or internationally, going to movie theaters and sporting events, etc. These are all activities we already are doing at reduced levels and for which wearing a mask, hand hygiene and physical distancing are effective disease control practices. COVID-19 vaccines are indeed the measure that will make the ability to totally reopen our society complete, but we are not there yet. Documentation of one's COVID-19 vaccine status may be useful in selected situations in the future. That remains to be seen.

Finally, inadequate vaccine supply and disparities in vaccine delivery have created enormous challenges in providing equal access to vaccination. Also, the amount of misinformation, disinformation, and lingering vaccine hesitancy continue to limit the speed at which we will reach the level of vaccination of the population that would make this documentation meaningful. The requirement for "vaccine passports" is already alienating people who are opposed to vaccinations for a variety of reasons, paradoxically risking reduced vaccine uptake. This politicization of the vaccination effort is of concern. There are indeed people who, due to medical contraindications or legal exemptions, will not be vaccinated, and we do not yet have a national framework on how to address this.

Vaccine passports are not the solution for reopening our society — a robust vaccination program is. The requirement to document one's vaccination status for COVID-19 may one day have its place. For now, it is an idea whose time has not yet come.

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.

Georges C. Benjamin
Georges C. Benjamin, MD, is a well-known health policy leader, practitioner and administrator. He currently serves as the executive director of the American Public Health Association, the nation's oldest and largest organization of public health professionals. He is also a former secretary of health for the state of Maryland. Dr. Benjamin is a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine. He is board-certified in internal medicine, a Master of the American College of Physicians, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a fellow emeritus of the American College of Emergency Physicians, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He serves on several nonprofit boards such as Research!America, the Truth Foundation and, the Reagan-Udall Foundation. He is also a former member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, a council that advises the President on how best to assure the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
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