Why Denmark’s “corona passport” is more of a promise than a plan
February 10, 2021
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Lennards says IBM could have a pilot passport ready to go within a week and could easily roll the project out nationally in months, largely thanks to the country’s combination of centralized health information and a single online identity authentication system, called NEM-ID, that citizens already use for banking, taxes, and communication with the government. 

Working out exactly how the passport will be deployed promises to be stickier, however. In order to fully reopen the economy, business leaders like Søltoft are pressing for the passport to include more than just vaccination status—that is, to treat covid negativity or prior infection on an equal footing with immunization. “People have to understand that a corona passport is not just for vaccine certification. It should also include negative test results and note if you have immunity because you’ve had the virus and recovered,” she says. 

“Concerned with tech, not with health”

But the public health implications of such a move worry some scientists. Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist at the University of Copenhagen, thinks the passport is a good idea generally, but he’s concerned about treating a negative test as equivalent to a vaccine—as well as other aspects of the plan. 

“So far, [the initiative] has mostly been concerned with the tech, and not with the health limitations,” he says. “But as a virologist, I can see there are holes.” 

“I know business has a vested interest… but it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated.”

Even with a high degree of effectiveness, for example, vaccines leave a significant segment of the inoculated vulnerable to infection. “A passport can help open a medium-size venue like a theater, but it’s much riskier with a music festival like Roskilde,” he says, referring to an annual event that is one of the biggest such festivals in Europe. “Maybe it’s 90% effective, but if there are 100,000 people there, there are still 5,000 people who won’t be protected, even though they have the passport.” 

He is also worried about escape variants like the South African and Brazilian strains, which are proving resistant to some vaccines; not all inoculations are the same, and covid is constantly evolving. “In some cases, the vaccine should be combined with a negative test,” he says. “And in case of travel to countries with certain variants, I still wouldn’t rule out isolation. I know business has a vested interest in that not happening, and that some will say these are a minority of cases. But it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated.” 

And even if the corona passport is rolled out, Denmark can’t act alone. If normality is to be restored to international travel, other countries will have to accept the document—and perhaps launch certifications of their own. On Monday, Greece and Israel signed a deal that allows vaccinated citizens to travel between the two countries; both Sweden and the UK have announced certification programs to enable their citizens to travel over the summer, and the European Union has said it hopes to generate a uniform set of standards for certification among member states. But France and Germany have so far opposed passports on privacy grounds, and in places like the US, any such plans may be thwarted by a lack of centralized health information. 

As a tiny country with a high degree of digital literacy, Denmark doesn’t face all the same challenges. But as Danish Industry’s Søltoft points out, less tangible values are also working in its favor. For one thing, she says, “people have a high level of trust in each other. We trust our authorities and each other.” It also helps that when it comes to global issues like climate change and gender equality, Denmark has gotten used to positioning itself at the forefront. “We’re so open to the rest of the world,” Søltoft adds. “So if we can lead the way, we’d like to.”

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

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