Health IT group calls on HHS to develop standards to ensure adoption of 'vaccine passports'

As some countries and private companies have already begun experimenting with so-called “vaccine passports,” it’s likely digital vaccine credentials will take off in the U.S. to restart tourism and international travel.

But a health IT trade group says there need to be more formal technical standards for digital vaccine cards in order to ensure public trust. The Health Innovation Alliance (HIA), a group that comprises patients, providers, employers, insurers and tech startups, is calling on the Biden administration to provide more guidance for digital vaccine card developers.

In a letter to Jeff Zients, the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response team coordinator, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and Micky Tripathy, head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), the health IT group said developing standards for the vaccine cards will be important to avoid issues at public spaces like transportation hubs when authorities could potentially question the validity of the data and restrict entry.

“Simply put, digital vaccine cards will not be trusted if different standards and questionable data mark their reliability,” Joel White, HIA’s executive director, said in the letter.

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The letter outlined several areas in which the healthcare industry needs federal guidance on digital vaccine cards. They include secure interoperability of digital vaccine cards across software and geographic locations. White wrote that interoperability will be important for people to travel and for employers with offices in multiple states. He also called for rules on how to digitally store the vaccine cards.

Other areas that require guidance include secure identity management and verification as well as federal guidance regarding provenance standards for vaccine and testing data.

“Ideally, data would be drawn from immunization registries to ensure accuracy and to verify administration,” White wrote.

HIA also called on HHS to implement bidirectional exchange standards to make sure data can flow between providers and pharmacies.

Technical standards like the HIA recommends could ensure these types of digital vaccine cards and passports remain accurate and can flow securely from one point to another, the organization said.

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Earlier this month, the EU launched a closely watched effort to create a joint vaccination passport for its more than 440 million citizens and residents to help salvage the European summer tourism season.

During ONC’s virtual Annual Meeting on Monday, Tripathi said the office is working with several other federal agencies to decide how best to support private sector initiatives in developing digital vaccine credentials.

Tripathi recently acknowledged digital vaccine credentials raise a number of challenges that need to be ironed out including privacy, protecting against fraud and ensuring the technology is available to everyone.

During a March 12 White House press briefing, Zients said the Biden administration would support efforts by private sector companies and not-for-profit coalitions to develop digital vaccine credentials. “Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy," he said.

More than a dozen 'passport' initiatives

One of the most significant hurdles facing federal officials: the sheer number of passport initiatives underway, with the Biden administration this month identifying at least 17, The Washington Post reported, citing slides the organization obtained from an ONC briefing about vaccine credentials.

United Airlines has been testing the CommonPass mobile app, which was created by the Commons Project Foundation and the World Economic Forum. The app lets travelers show their COVID-19 testing status to officials at both ends of the flight.

In addition, companies in technology, health and travel are collaborating to create a digital passport called the Good Health Pass Collaborative. This passport will provide an initial plan on how to create interoperable digital health pass systems. 

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Healthcare provider Carbon Health introduced a HIPAA-compliant digital vaccine card called Health Pass. The card displays time-stamped info on vaccination doses, the administering provider, vaccination location and the vaccine type and lot numbers. A QR code lets people scan the pass from a mobile phone.

“As more people get vaccinated and the economy reopens, more industries will request proof of vaccinations to allow people inside buildings, to travel or to take part in social activities,” Eren Bali, co-founder and CEO of Carbon Health, said in a statement. “It’s critical to ensure vaccination records are unforgeable and easily accessible.”

In the letter to federal officials, HIA notes its work in developing testing, data exchange techniques, communication on real-time results and vaccine distribution. The alliance cited the benefits of creating the vaccine card policies to end the pandemic.

“These policies will move us forward in stopping the spread of the current pandemic and preparing us for any future public health emergencies,” White wrote.