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Digital health passes critical for safe resumption of international travel

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A passenger shows her Covid-19 health pass on a mobile phone at Lyon rail station in Paris on August 9. AFP

Digital health passes critical for safe resumption of international travel

With 67 million jobs affected globally, and a staggering revenue loss of $935 billion from international tourism in 2020 alone, the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly detrimental to the global travel and tourism industry.

As international travel starts to pick up, bringing much-needed relief to the industry and global economy, countries need assurance that this increase in cross-border travel will not result in unmanageable Covid-19 infection spikes. Extensive health checks at borders are required, including the need for verification tools such as vaccine passports and digital health passes to authenticate the health data of travellers.

While a vaccine passport certifying that a person has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 is raised as one of the primary verification tools, vaccination status is not the only data required by governments to determine entry for the travelling public. Therefore, a secure digital wallet that stores multiple medical documents including Covid-19 diagnostics test results and individual risk assessments, known as Digital Health Passes (DHP), might be a more practical and adaptable alternative.

Such solutions include SMART Health Cards by name as a potential solution that satisfies the described requirements, and which is already supported by Apple, Samsung and The Commons Project. Notably, the form factor of the DHP is agnostic in that the source information can be captured manually or digitally before being incorporated into existing digitally-based systems.

DHPs deliver government and health authorities’ information beyond vaccination verification to either verify an individual’s health status or provide a more comprehensive set of data to inform decision-making. At the same time, DHPs can also create a simplified and less stressful experience for travellers by reducing or eliminating the need to carry around physical copies of multiple health documents. In a study published by Amadeus earlier this year, over nine in 10 travellers surveyed said they would be comfortable using a digital health passport for future trips.

Given the vast and diverse concerns around the design and deployment of a DHP, there needs to be a clear set of considerations to inform and guide the conversation around facilitating travel. A recent paper, The Building Blocks of Digital Health Passes – developed by the Asia Travel Technology Industry Association (ATTIA), together with health and digital infrastructure experts including members of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) – recommended a framework to assist industry and governments as decisions about opening borders are made.

The priority is to develop standards and frameworks that ensure consistency and interoperability between a myriad of digitally based systems already in operation across borders.

Ensuring data privacy and security is essential to reassure travellers on the safe use of their private health information. If travellers and governments do not have reason to believe their data will be secure and utilised appropriately, they will be less willing to adopt DHPs. Not only that, DHP data should be securely bound to the traveller’s identity to prevent falsification of such information.

Organisations requiring access to health data via DHPs should minimise datasets needed for risk assessment while also using encryption such as blockchain to protect personal information and provide limited data on an as-needed basis.

Next, the implementation of DHPs requires the integration of verification elements to cement trust in such data among authoritative bodies and travellers. This can be approached in two ways.

A point-of arrival verification will involve travellers showing verifiers, such as immigration officers, the DHPs to perform checks on the spot. For example, the traveller can show high-quality QR codes for the verifier to scan, which then will be processed through a digital verification system or platform that provides authentication from the issuer for these checks.

Secondly, a pre-arrival, contactless verification will involve the traveller approving the submission of their DHP to airlines, travel agents, and travel sites. This could be done through a proactive submission by the traveller to the verifier upon request or for the DHP server to automatically send the traveller’s DHP data to the verifier from a database upon approval from the traveller.

In the context of international travel, aggregating the different health information source data and government protocols into a single solution would allow for easier adoption of the said solution by an airline or airport. Innovation and change in both health and travel segments would drive the success of such a solution. With governments coordinating the rollout of national vaccination programmes, national vaccine registries may hold essential data.

While accessing this information is simple in theory, there are multiple challenges. Amid the highly fragmented health-diagnostics testing landscape today, there are various individual testing sites, laboratories, and different systems and protocols. Hence, the development of international standards would significantly simplify verification.

Public-private collaboration is necessary to attain an interoperable standard at a national level, along with helping governments determine and define the rules that will determine entry requirements. Interoperable platforms, including Affinidi’s Travel verification solution that can verify various global digital health credentials, have proven to be a viable option for governments to deploy to reopen their borders safely.

Furthermore, willing organisations will be able to fill the gap of being an intermediary between different DHPs so that the verifier can work through the intermediary to validate the DHP of the traveller from the issuer. The development of national-level open standards for DHPs will reduce the adaptation intermediaries in the value chain will need to improve interoperability between verifiers and issuers, allowing them to achieve seamless access at scale.

Lastly, accessibility can prove to be an issue in Asia Pacific, where limited internet connectivity or smartphone ownership could hinder and keep individuals or businesses from participating in the process. Upon recognising differing levels of technological access, the DHP and supporting systems should aim to deliver equitable access across the region, with options for low-tech support or offline usage when needed. One method would be to utilise QR codes, which can also be printed. Introducing broader accessibility of a simple-to-use system will then help drive consumer and industry acceptance.

Travel remains an aspiration for many in Asia Pacific, with international travel being a barometer of our return to normalcy and for governments and industry, a much-needed economic injection. The development of interoperable, trusted digital solutions to solve the complexities of kick-starting travel would contribute significantly to the smoother post-pandemic recovery of the travel industry and the economy.

Jeff Paine is managing director of Asia Internet Coalition. Richard Andrew is executive director of Asia Travel Technology Industry Association.



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