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Companies navigate ethical minefield to build proof of vaccination apps

In the U.S, after you get vaccinated against COVID-19 you are given a small paper card issued by the CDC that is essentially the only evidence that you’ve received your shots. It might seem like a flimsy level of proof, one that you could easily lose, but replacing that paper copy with a digi…

  • Posted on 31st Aug, 2021 08:59 AM
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In the U.S, after you get vaccinated against COVID-19 you are given a small paper card issued by the CDC that is essentially the only evidence that you’ve received your shots. It might seem like a flimsy level of proof, one that you could easily lose, but replacing that paper copy with a digital one has become a political lightning rod in America.

In spite of that, many companies are attempting to attack the problem to produce a viable form of digital proof, sometimes called vaccine passports. For all intents and purposes, what many call a vaccine passport is simply proof you’ve been vaccinated that you can carry on your smartphone, rather than on a card in your wallet.

Some have argued against the digital approach for privacy reasons. Others have claimed it is a civil liberties issue, and some have pointed to equity issues related to not having equal access to appropriate technology or the internet.

That lack of consensus along with the open ethical questions, has led some states, including Florida and Georgia, to ban the use of electronic passport records, at least as far as requiring them to conduct state business or to create a centralized vaccination record-keeping system. In Iowa, the governor signed a law last month that prohibits businesses and the state from requiring any proof to access services, whether the card is physical or digital.

These are just a few examples of the patchwork of state laws and executive orders that has resulted in even more complexity for companies trying to develop products to solve this problem. But not every state is banning digital vaccination records. Earlier this month, California opened a registration system to request a digital record of your vaccination and New York announced a system earlier this year to download proof of vaccination to your smartphone. More on these approaches later.

We spoke to several experts to get their take on moving your vaccine card to the digital world to find out how this could work in spite of the obvious friction.

Practical issues

According to Dr. Shira I. Doron from Tufts Medical Center in Boston, whose specialties include infectious diseases and hospital epidemiology, it’s not as simple a matter as may sound.

For starters she says, states have not kept records in a consistent way. People have been getting vaccinated in all kinds of places from school gyms to pharmacies to stadiums, and it’s not clear if those records have made their way to people’s primary care physicians, assuming they even have one.

“[Vaccine passports could work] if [a system] had been rolled out that way [with central record keeping in mind] from December 15th [when we started vaccinating], but it was not. So, if somebody takes it on to go backwards and issue that kind of proof to people, maybe a system like that could work — and of course there are a lot of people that have taken issue with the ethics of that,” she said.

For her, it comes down to infection rates. As they drop with more people getting vaccinated, it could alleviate the need for any kind of proof at all because we would be safer simply because the infection rate fell below 10%. “I think that more ideally we get down to such a low infection rate and such high rate of vaccination that there is no longer a concern about people walking into a building,” she said.

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