Why Europe’s COVID Vaccine Passports Won’t Work

ROME—Almost as soon as authorities in the Mediterranean announced that no one who has not been vaccinated for COVID-19 would be able to visit Sardinia, Cyprus, or the Greek islands this summer, fake vaccine certificates started popping up for sale on the black market for around €100 a piece. And now that Europe’s vaccination program is in full swing and the standardized state-mandated health cards one gets after receiving the COVID jabs are readily available to creative forgers to copy, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a relatively cheap fake document could allow anyone who hasn’t been able or willing to get the actual vaccine but still wants a sunny beach holiday can sneak past entrance controls.

The president of the European Union Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has adamantly supported the introduction of a “COVID passport” that would allow tourists to bypass quarantines and even invasive brain-tickling swab tests if they can prove they have been inoculated. “It is a medical requirement to have a certificate proving that you have been vaccinated,” she said last week, after a measure was introduced by Greece to make vaccination passports mandatory for E.U. travel, much like it is for those traveling to many African nations to prove they have had a Yellow Fever vaccine.

But the practice of standardizing this so-called "proof” of being vaccinated will take far longer than the short months leading up to summer to put in place, meaning fraudulent vaccine certificates aren’t the only issue challenging the European Union’s tentative plans to try to salvage the summer holiday season. The larger concern is that Europe’s 27 member states, which have a hard time agreeing on almost anything, will somehow come together to agree on what vaccination proof should look like in practice.

Many countries are already moving forward with their own version of the special entrance permits. Denmark has already put in place a plan to offer digital vaccination passports to its citizens who are vaccinated to allow free travel within the nation. Estonia is introducing an e-yellow card, which would allow vaccinated travelers to update their health record on an app. And in Iceland, which is not part of the E.U. but which does benefit from the open-border Schengen treaty, vaccination passports are already taken in lieu of COVID-19 swab testing before arrival.

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Poland, Portugal, and Spain have legislation for vaccination passports ready for parliamentary votes and in Hungary “proof of immunity” in the form of vaccination or an antibody test that shows full recovery from the virus, is enough to skirt quarantine requirements. In Italy, which is going through a delicate government transition, several measures have been introduced about how to ensure the validity of such a document given the country’s experience with fraudulent organized crime. While in France, the tourism sector has accused the government of “dragging its feet” on a comprehensive plan that could include updatable digital certificates in lieu of a passport that could include a traveler’s COVID history, from tests to immunity.

The U.K., now shut out of the E.U. thanks to Brexit, is also considering its own brand of immunity proof that would allow vaccinated people to go to restaurants, pubs and—if other countries allow—the airport.

But the introduction of a vaccine passport or any such document that would deem someone “immune” goes beyond just the obvious challenge of logistics. The mere fact that only the wealthy countries currently have the best access to vaccines and testing cuts out an entire segment of the population from even dreaming about hitting the road to Europe, making discrimination another issue the E.U. may be willingly fostering by requiring vaccines as a shortcut to holidays.

Many companies across Europe, and even the Vatican in Rome, have warned that employees risk losing their jobs if they refuse a shot that they make sure are available. But there are countless other countries that have not yet been able to get their vaccination programs rolling due to supply shortages thanks to wealthier countries gobbling up the vials, and which just don’t yet have the sort of infrastructure in place to even provide vaccines to the willing, let alone require the skeptical to get inoculated.

But none of these efforts to return to normalcy will work unless all countries agree to recognize proof of immunity, whether by antibodies or one of the many vaccines. “For certificates to work internationally, they must be recognized by countries around the world,” Sweden’s social minister, Lena Hallengren, said this week. And that may yet prove to be the biggest challenge.