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Is Blockchain the Answer for COVID Vaccine Passports?

As coronavirus vaccines become more widespread, critical questions arise around providing proof of vaccination. Blockchain or open source digital ledger technologies could offer a secure solution.

A vaccinated person hold up an app showing their immune status.
The public and private sectors are both moving at record speed to gain ground in the fight against COVID-19, embracing every strategy and solution that could help people get back to “normal.” We’re ramping up testing, building momentum with vaccinations and setting up registries that enable people to prove their vaccination status. Recent headlines have covered different “vaccine passport” models being piloted in the U.S. and internationally. 

However, a mobile app-based certification system, by itself, is incomplete and will prove to be ineffective on a global scale as much of the world’s population still doesn’t own a smartphone. To be honest, it might not even work on a national level here in the U.S., which is technologically dense, simply because not all vaccine administration sites are set up to certify vaccinations using a mobile app. Many Americans still receive a physical vaccine certificate as their only proof of inoculation. But handwritten, paper-based documentation is often illegible or incorrect. It’s also easy to lose and counterfeit. 

That’s why the public and private sectors must work together to create a single, standardized vaccine verification system framework more akin to the traditional passport data exchange that border agents, airlines, hotels, educators and others trust to be authentic and true. However, it must be based on globally accepted and adopted interoperability standards if we are to restore both regional economies and the global travel and tourism industry, which employed 330 million people and contributed 10.3 percent of the global GDP before the pandemic. 

We shouldn’t restrict people’s rights to board a plane, train or boat simply because they don’t have access to technology. Yet, we can’t rely solely on physical cards — in their current form — to grant permission to travel, visit with loved ones, or return to work and school. 

Rethinking Our Use of Technology Will Help Us Get Further, Faster

If we want to help people safely re-enter the (whole) world and restore some societal normalcy, we must think about what it will take to build trust in vaccine certificates, whether it’s a piece of paper, a secure card, or a barcode or QR code on a mobile device. 

Conversations with government, transportation, education and health-care leaders are confirming that we need to stand up a universally accessible vaccine verification system that enables all interested parties to reliably confirm: 

  • which authority issued the person’s vaccine certificate credential;
  • that the credential is being presented by the person to whom it was issued;
  • that the credential is authentic;
  • that the credential has not been revoked.
That’s why we must bring blockchain and digital ledger technologies (DLT) to the forefront of every vaccine verification system framework. Properly done, digital ledgers cannot be falsified and can reliably prove that a person has been vaccinated. 

All a health-care provider would need to do is create an electronic record of an individual’s vaccination using a mobile device such as a clinical smartphone or tablet, which are already used by many administering organizations around the world today, including pharmacists and retailers. The difference in this case is that the data would also be sent to the vaccine verification DLT in addition to the administering organization’s internal health-care information system or a regional electronic health record (EHR) system. 

Either a secure smartcard or tamper-proof label that can be affixed to a passport or other ID card could then be printed and given to the patient as physical proof of vaccination. It would be encoded with personal vaccination data that’s easily verified via the DLT with a simple barcode or QR scan. That’s the one key piece missing from most physical vaccine certificates today: the secure barcode or QR code that enables sensitive vaccination information to be stored digitally within the card or label versus on the front of it. Such secure encoding protects the security of the data and the privacy of the card holder.

Of course, if the patient does have a smartphone and wants a digital vaccine certificate (in addition to the physical certificate), it can be simultaneously issued using a mobile app on the patient’s device. Both the physical and digital formats allow vaccination data to be backed up to the DLT record should authenticity or ownership ever be questioned or a replacement certificate ever need to be issued. 

With this system framework, all it takes to validate a person’s vaccination status is a barcode or QR code scan on the individual’s card, label or personal smartphone. Depending on permission settings, the verifier will either see the full set of encoded data (name, vaccine manufacturer, batch number, vaccination date, etc.) or simply a “tick” confirming vaccination or a “cross” indicating that requirements have not been met. 

What DLT Can Do for COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery That No Other Technology Can

Several governments around the world have already been actively exploring blockchain and DLT for vaccination certification. Both technologies are used in support of border trade to verify shipment information and by supply chains to increase accountability. This application isn’t much different in principle. 

However, DLT offers a unique advantage over blockchain — and every other type of digital record system — in that it’s built around open source technology, completely decentralized and dependent on a cryptographically secure trust protocol between authorities, organizations and individuals to prevent unauthorized access to stored patient data. In other words, a DLT-based framework is key to developing the scalable, efficient and tamper-proof global electronic record system we need to share extensive patient vaccination data in a way that’s optimized for intensive privacy protection. 

If we want to open the world economy and enable everyone to move forward with their lives, including consumers who don’t have access to mobile technology, we must work together to stand up this technology framework. 

Drew Ehlers currently serves as the global futurist and the global general manager of SmartPack, Office of the CTO at Zebra Technologies. Drew is also responsible for producing advanced machine learning models and algorithms for predictive analytics to solve critical business problems for Zebra and its partners and customers, including emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision and blockchain.