It’s going to be a while before air travel returns to anything resembling what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. And after seven months of restrictions on international travel, many people are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to board an international flight. This doesn’t just include vacationers who had to postpone their dream trip because of COVID—the limitations on international flights have also posed challenges to those who travel for business, or to visit family in another country.
Now, a new pilot program giving passengers the opportunity to upload their COVID-related health data, is being tested by two major airlines as a way to potentially facilitate international travel during the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about the so-called “COVID passports.”
What are COVID passports?
Starting back in April, there has been talk of using “immunity passports” to enable international travel. Initially, the idea was to issue some type of documentation to people who have developed immunity to SARS-CoV-2, but as we learned more about the virus, it became evident that it didn’t follow the typical trajectory of recovery. At this point, it’s still unclear whether everyone who had COVID-19 will achieve some type of immunity, and if so, how long it will last. There are also plenty of legal and ethical challenges with that type of system.
To be clear: the newly announced COVID passports take a different approach: Instead of providing proof of immunity, they function as a “digital health pass,” where passengers can provide certified COVID-19 test results to border agents when they arrive in a different country, AFAR reports. They are called CommonPass, and were developed by the Swiss-based nonprofit the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum. So far, the organization has presented their idea to at least 37 countries.
“Travel and tourism has been down across the board due to the COVID pandemic,” Diane Sabatino, deputy executive director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told AFAR. “CBP wants to be part of the solution to build confidence in air travel, and we are glad to help the aviation industry and our federal partners [start up] a pilot like CommonPass.”
At this point, United Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways have started testing the CommonPass, offering it as an option to passengers on select flights between London and New York and between Hong Kong and Singapore.
How does CommonPass work?
Basically, it requires a lot of steps and international cooperation. We’ll let Michelle Baran at AFAR explain it:
Each participating country must decide on two things—first, which COVID-19 tests and lab results are deemed credible. For instance, in the United States, the current standard required by states such as Hawaii has become a PCR test (also known as the nasal swab test) administered by a lab certified by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA).
Secondly, each government must determine what its entry requirements are. Once those are established, the CommonPass creates a digital network with certified labs so travelers’ results can be uploaded to the platform. And when travelers enter their destination, they are given the entry requirements they need to fulfill.
After travelers take a COVID-19 test at a certified lab and upload the results to their mobile phone, they can then complete any additional health questionnaires required by the destination country. CommonPass confirms compliance and generates a QR code that can be scanned by airline staff and border officials either from a mobile device or one that has been printed out.
The current trials are a very important part of the process, giving passengers, airlines, and border agents the chance to see how they work from start to finish.
How do you know if CommonPass is right for you?
First of all, unless you’re scheduled to fly on one of the selected United Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, this isn’t something you have to make your mind up about today, as we’re not to the point of it being standard practice. For now, those participating in the trial run aren’t exempt from any government travel restrictions, like a mandatory quarantine. Though that may change in the future, for now, you’ll have to follow the same rules as everyone else.
“Without the ability to trust COVID-19 tests—and eventually vaccine records—across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” Dr. Bradley Perkins, former chief strategy and innovation officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told AFAR. Perkins—who is now chief medical officer at the Commons Project—notes that having an international digital health information-sharing platform like CommonPass could be the key to reopening borders.
At this stage, we’re still multiple steps away from this becoming a reality, including countries around the world coming to an agreement on which COVID-19 tests and results are considered credible. It’s also important to remember that right now, COVID tests only provide information for a particular snapshot in time regarding whether or not a person is infected with the virus. Turning it over to Lifehacker’s Senior Health Editor Beth Skwarecki to explain:
A person can have the coronavirus and still test negative. This may be because they got a false negative result. Among the possible reasons why: maybe the swab didn’t pick up enough viral RNA, or maybe the person is in the very early stages of the infection when it’s harder to detect. The FDA notes in a fact sheet on PCR testing that, “a negative result does not rule out COVID-19 and should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions. A negative result does not exclude the possibility of COVID-19.”
Using COVID tests as a means to reopen international borders is putting a lot of faith in a process that has yet been perfected.
You may also be wondering what happens to all of your personal health information collected and stored in CommonPass. According to The Commons Project, their framework will “allow individuals to access their lab results and vaccination records, and consent to have that information used to validate their COVID status without revealing any other underlying personal health information.”
Passengers would be able to access their lab results and vaccination records through existing health data systems, national or local registries, or personal digital health records (Apple Health for iOS, CommonHealth for Android). The Commons Project also claims that “Apple Health and CommonHealth let individuals store their health records securely and privately on their phones, entirely under their control.”
Though it may take a while to roll out a system like this, understanding how it’s supposed to work is an important first step in deciding whether CommonPass would be something you’d want to try.