As the world is transfixed by the escalating war in Ukraine and its economic fallout, big moves concerning vaccine passports are taking place behind closed doors.
An article published last Thursday by Politico, citing a source from the so-called Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI™), reported that the World Health Organization is poised to convene member States and representatives of Covid-19 immunization credential technology groups to recognize different vaccine certificates across nations and regions. In other words, as countries around the world drop almost all of their COVID-19 public health measures, it looks like digital vaccine passports are going to be made not just universal but permanent (as I warned would happen in April 2021):
The WHO is bringing together the groups to develop a “trust framework” that would allow countries to verify whether vaccine credentials are legitimate, said Brian Anderson, chief digital health physician at MITRE and a co-founder of the VCI.
Why it matters: The effort would aid international travel by allowing proof of vaccination to be more easilyshared and verified, Anderson said. Many countries and regions have different standards for proof of inoculation, creating confusion for travelers and officials.
“It’s piecemeal, not coordinated and done nation to nation,” Anderson said. “It can be a real challenge.”
The WHO would say only that news on the topic should be coming “soon.”
The VCI is behind SMART Health Cards, which have become the de facto standard for digital vaccine credentials in the U.S., with dozens of states developing or adopting the technology. The group will participate in the initiative.
The Vaccine Credentials Initiative (VCI™) is one of a number of private partnerships working to harmonize vaccine passport standards and systems at a global level. The VCI™ is leading the development and implementation of the open-source SMART Health Card Framework and specifications. Its partners include U.S. government contractor MITRE Corporation, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Oracle, Sales Force and Mayo Clinic.
According to its own website, the VCI™ has helped to implement SMART health cards in 15 jurisdictions: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Hong Kong, Israel, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Senegal, Qatar, Rwanda, North Macedonia and Aruba. It has also helped to “quietly” roll out digital vaccine certificates across 21 US states, as Forbes recently reported:
While the United States government has not issued a federal digital vaccine pass, a national standard has nevertheless emerged. To date, 21 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico offer accessibility to the SMART Health Card, a verifiable digital proof of vaccination developed through the Vaccination Credential Initiative (VCI), a global coalition of public and private stakeholders…
And very soon, at least four more states will be rolling out access to SMART Health Cards. “We’ve seen a notable uptick in states that have officially launched public portals where individuals can get verifiable vaccination credentials in the form of SMART Health Cards with a QR code,” says Dr. Brian Anderson, co-founder of the VCI and chief digital health physician at MITRE.
Another global partnership seeking to standardize vaccine passports is the Commons Project Foundation (CPJ), which was founded by the Rockefeller Foundation and is supported by the World Economic Forum.
There is also the Good Health Pass Collaborative, which was founded last year by Mastercard, IBM, Grameen Foundation and the International Chamber of Commerce. The organization is the brainchild of the world’s largest digital identity advocacy group, the New York-based ID2020 Alliance, which itself was set up in 2016 with seed money from Microsoft, Accenture, PwC, the Rockefeller Foundation, Cisco and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The ID2020 Alliance’s founding mission is to provide digital identity to every person on planet Earth by 2030, whether they want one or not.
WHO Changing Course
This is all happening as the general messaging around vaccine passports in most countries is that they are on their way out, at least for domestic purposes, as we all return to some semblance of normality. The vaccine passports are moving to the backburner — at least that’s what we are being told. But at the same time, governments, companies and supranational governing entities are working behind the scenes to extend the use of vaccine passports for all international travel, in the process making them a permanent feature of the global legal landscape.
According to the Politico article, the World Health Organization, after publicly opposing vaccine passports for more than a year, is ready to lend its endorsement. If true, it represents a sea change in policy.
Just over a month ago, at the tenth meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the WHO reiterated its opposition to vaccine passports, urging states “NOT… to require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for international travel as the only pathway or condition permitting international travel given limited global access and inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Now, just over a month later, that opposition appears to have crumbled. And not just according to VCI™. On February 23, T-Systems, the IT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, announced in a press release that it had been chosen by the WHO as an “industry partner” in the introduction of digital vaccine passports as a standard procedure not only for COVID-19 vaccines but also “other vaccinations such as polio or yellow fever, across 193 countries” as well as presumably other vaccines that come on line in the future:
The World Health Organization (WHO) will make it easier for its member states to introduce digital vaccination certificates in the future. The WHO is setting up a gateway for this purpose. It enables QR codes on electronic vaccination certificates to be checked across national borders. It is intended to serve as a standard procedure for other vaccinations such as polio or yellow fever after COVID-19. The WHO has selected T-Systems as an industry partner to develop the vaccination validation services.
Garrett Mehl, Unit Head, WHO Department of Digital Health and Innovation, said: “COVID-19 affects everyone. Countries will therefore only emerge from the pandemic together. Vaccination certificates that are tamper-proof and digitally verifiable build trust. WHO is therefore supporting member states in building national and regional trust networks and verification technology. The WHO’s gateway service also serves as a bridge between regional systems. It can also be used as part of future vaccination campaigns and home-based records.”
Adel Al-Saleh, Member of the Deutsche Telekom AG Board of Management and CEO T-Systems, explained: “Corona has a grip on the world. Digitization keeps the world running. Digital vaccination certificates like the EU’s are key to this. We are pleased to be able to support the WHO in the fight against the pandemic. Health is a strategic growth area for T-Systems. Winning this contract underscores our commitment to the industry.”
The timing of the WHO’s purported policy reversal is certainly curious given that back in April 2021 the organization said it was not yet ready to commit to vaccine passports because it was not yet clear whether the vaccines actually prevented transmission of the virus.
“We at WHO are saying at this stage we would not like to see the vaccination passport as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not certain at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmission,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said at a UN news briefing. “There are all those other questions, apart from the question of discrimination against the people who are not able to have the vaccine for one reason or another.”
Now that we know for sure that the COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent transmission of COVID-19 (and recent public health data from Scotland, England and Denmark suggest they may actually exacerbate it), the WHO apparently feel that now is an ideal time to endorse vaccine passports for global travel. This is happening less than two months after the region of the world with the highest per-capita take up of vaccine passports, Europe, was the epicenter of the Omicron wave. It’s also happening as concerns are quickly growing about the safety of the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
Closing All Borders for the Unvaccinated
If the WHO does reverse policy on vaccine passports and its 193 member countries follow the organization’s new guidelines and implement vaccine passport systems, it will presumably mean that anyone who is not up to date with their vaccine schedule will not be able to cross international borders in the future. And that would essentially mean the end of two fundamental ethical principles underpinning modern medicine: bodily autonomy (the right to make decisions over one’s own life and future); and bodily integrity (the right to self-ownership and self-determination over one’s own body).
And all for the sake of vaccines that now offer virtually no protection against transmission or infection of COVID-19 and whose safety profile is looking increasingly checkered. There are plenty of other reasons why we should worry about the mandatory application of vaccine passports for global travel, including the threat they pose to our privacy; the additional surveillance powers they grant to governments and corporations; the heightened risk that our most personal data, including our health information and biometric identifiers, could be hacked; the polarizing, discriminatory and segregational effects vaccine passports are already having across society, affecting already marginalized groups the most; and the threat they pose to many of our most basic rights and freedoms.
For the moment the WHO’s legal framework – the so-called International Health Regulations (IHR) – does not grant the organization inspection, policing or enforcement powers against its member States. In other words, it cannot force member States to follow its guidelines. But that could also be about to change. As the Politico article reports, talks are under way to establish a “global pandemic treaty” that will give the WHO more powers to “strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”
The U.S. government, the WHO’s biggest donor, “has been involved in backdoor discussions with the WHO on the treaty and how to strengthen the organization,” notes the article. The proposed amendments “would require swift action by countries and the WHO during an emergency and give the WHO greater powers to act during a crisis.” In other words, the WHO could soon be given much sharper teeth when it comes to shaping global health policy.
As I note in my upcoming book Scanned: Why Vaccine Passports and Digital ID Will Mean the End of Privacy and Personal Freedom, there is a case to be made for establishing pandemic control processes and standards at a global level, especially given how badly many national governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how poorly they have coordinated their containment efforts:
However, a centralized global pandemic response under the auspices of an organization like the WHO will mean that health authorities will be even less answerable to local populations. One thing that is clear is that the WHO, in its current form, is not the body to do it.
The organization has already done a shoddy enough job of combatting the current pandemic. For example, it failed to recognize that the COVID-19 virus was an airborne disease until far too late. It also fought, at every step, to discourage national health authorities from using cheap, off-patent medicines… in the early treatment of COVID-19 patients. The WHO is also heavily conflicted by the donations it receives from private companies, many in the pharmaceutical industry, and private trusts, such as the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, both at the forefront of efforts to push global digital identity on the world’s population. Those donations now account for 80 percent of the organization’s funding.
It seems those companies now want more bang for their buck. The Global Business Coalition — whose members include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, BusinessEurope, the Confederation of Indian Industry and others across six continents — recently sent a letter to the WHO requesting even more of a say in the agency’s decisions. “The current pandemic represents a paradigm shift in the way governments, business, and civil society forge deep bonds to respond to emergency situations and to develop sustainable health policies,” the coalition wrote.