Biden faces growing pressure to support ‘vaccine passports’ for travel as White House skirts around the issue

Airline and travel industries urge US to serve ‘as a leader’ in vaccine passports as White House declines to offer support — for now

Chris Riotta
New York
Wednesday 10 March 2021 17:55

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The White House is facing growing pressure from the airline and travel industries to throw its support behind vaccination passports, a proposal with the goal of eventually allowing Americans who have received their coronavirus shots to fly freely for work and leisure. 

President Joe Biden signed an executive order shortly after taking office earlier this year which instructed federal agencies to explore how Covid-19 vaccine records can be digitised and potentially used on international immunisation cards. 

But the administration has not yet fully backed the concept, amid concerns over how the immunisation cards might impact privacy and human rights, and questions surrounding the equity of the vaccine rollout nationwide. 

Nearly 30 travel groups and major US airlines wrote a letter to COVID-19 Recovery Team Coordinator Jeff Zients on Monday urging the White House to serve “as a leader” in the development of temporary vaccine health credentials. 

He added: “The current diverse and fragmented digital health credentials used to implement different countries’ air travel testing requirements risk causing confusion, reducing compliance, and increasing fraud.”

Vaccination certificates have previously been employed by the US and other countries to certify travellers have received immunisations for smallpox, typhoid, cholera and other diseases. Some countries still require certificates proving travellers have yellow fever immunisation.

Asked on Tuesday about the letter from the airline industries, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quipped: “‘Vaccine passports,’ I believe they’re calling it, right?”

“We recognise that as many Americans get vaccinated, questions will come up, and they’re already starting to come up, as to how people will be able to demonstrate they are vaccinated,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember only about 10 per cent of the American population is vaccinated at this point.  We’ve obviously made progress, but we have more work to do.”

Ms Psaki continued: “Right now, our focus, as the US government, is on getting more people vaccinated.  And we’ll think about how people can demonstrate they are vaccinated as we get more people vaccinated.  But that’s where we’re putting our energy and resources toward.”

The press secretary’s comments did not directly indicate whether the White House was planning to move forward in supporting some form of international vaccination certificate for international travel. However, she said the administration understood the private sector was “concerned” and added: “What I’m conveying is there are lots of ideas that will come from the private sector and nonprofits.  We welcome those.  But our focus from the federal government is on getting more people vaccinated, and that’s where we feel we can use our resources best.”

Despite the president’s initial executive order announced in January, he has not yet indicated any additional support for the use of vaccine certificates in travel. 

Some advocates for vaccine cards have said equity issues would soon be largely resolved as vaccines became readily more available to the entirety of the US public. State officials have even called for the use of vaccine cards to help reopen bars and restaurants as more people are vaccinated across the country.

However, some public health experts remain sceptical about the use of vaccination certificates for travel. In a Zoom media conference earlier this month, WHO executive director Dr Michael Ryan said things like “vaccine passports” should not yet be considered “because quite simply vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis.”

The Biden administration was set to announce on Wednesday it had secured an additional 100 million vaccines from Johnson & Johnson after the company had its one-shot vaccine approved for use by the FDA. 

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