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'Vaccine passports' pose more risks than benefits, Duke expert says

Posted April 7, 2021 2:08 p.m. EDT

— As more people worldwide get vaccinated against coronavirus, the concept of a "vaccine passport" to demonstrate someone's immunized status when traveling or attending a large event is gaining traction in some places and causing controversy in others.

Airlines and the U.K. government are testing out the digital documents, while Republican governors in several U.S. states have banned them, calling them a threat to personal freedom and privacy.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University and founding director of Duke Science & Society, said Wednesday that the benefits of a vaccine passport are far outweighed by the risks.

"It's not that we cannot require vaccinations in certain contexts. We can and we do," Farahany said. "The question is whether or not these passports are appropriate to be used by society across the board in many different settings, and I think the answer right now should be no."

Unlike the vaccines that most children have to get before they can enroll in school, she said, the coronavirus vaccines aren't widely available, nor have any of them been formally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – all are being administered under emergency authorizations.

Making vaccination a condition of being able to go to a restaurant or a workplace or board an airplane "conscripts people into being research participants," she said, noting that Moderna is still collecting health information on her seven months after she participated in one of its vaccine clinical trials.

Vaccine passports also give people a false sense of security, she said, given that health experts aren't sure how readily people who have been immunized can spread the virus to others, including children.

Another problem is equity, Farahany said. Many people in poorer areas have less access to vaccinations than others, she said, which would put them at an economic disadvantage if a vaccine passport were required for certain activities.

"If we condition participation in society based on access to a vaccine," she said, "I see a widening gap. Jobs lost during the pandemic will now go to people who had access to the vaccine."

Privacy concerns also need to be addressed, Farahany said.

The vaccine passport concept started out as the simple vaccination card people were given after their first shot so they could accurately schedule their second dose, based on which vaccine they were given. But because those were easily forged, especially after people posted photos of their cards, with all of the identifying information, on social media, different technology companies said they could provide a digital document.

Turning people's vaccination status over to private companies that aren't bound by health privacy standards could open the door to turning over more biometric information to these companies later on, Farahady said.

"It's not just whether or not we have information that's stored and shared with others. It's what's the context in which we're sharing [and] who has access to it," she said. "In cases of emergencies and in moments of crisis are the times we've given up the most rights, and then we can never ratchet them back."

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