Experts Discuss Ethical Implications of Vaccine Passports at HLS Webinar


Panelists discussed the legal, ethical, and public health implications of coronavirus digital health passes — or “vaccine passports” — at a Wednesday afternoon webinar hosted by the Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.

Petrie-Flom Center Executive Director Carmel D. Shachar moderated the event, titled “Vaccine Passports: A Path to the New Normal?” for an audience of more than 130 people.

The panelists included I. Glenn Cohen, the faculty director of the Petrie-Flom Center; Natalie M. Kofler, a visiting fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; Iris Goldner Lang, a professor at the University of Zagreb; and Seema Mohapatra, a law professor at Indiana University.

Though vaccine passports may offer a return to normalcy and allow institutions like universities to reopen, some panelists said they may also create privacy concerns and exacerbate existing inequities.


“The equity issues are both domestic in terms of racialized minorities and rural populations and people with disabilities, but also international in terms of access to vaccines for low and middle income countries,” Cohen said.

Having to provide proof of vaccination against other diseases is “commonplace,” Cohen said, giving the example of the yellow fever card that international travelers use to prove they have been vaccinated against yellow fever.

There are fundamental differences, however, between a Covid-19 vaccine passport and the yellow fever card because of the variance in Covid-19 vaccine efficacy and the lack of information about transmission or length of immunity, according to Kofler.

“This is a global pandemic and the issue here is really about protecting communities,” Kofler said. “We need to make sure that if we're allowing vaccinated individuals to travel to places that have low vaccination rates, are they actually protecting those communities from transmission?”

There may also be privacy concerns associated with developing vaccine passport infrastructure in the U.S., Mohapatra said. Under current proposals, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA — a federal law which protects a patient’s sensitive and private health information — would not apply to vaccine passports.

The European Commission recently proposed its own vaccine passport: the Digital Green Certificate, which would provide information about a person’s Covid-19 vaccination status, if they have recovered from the disease, and whether they have tested negative. According to Lang, there are “huge concerns” about the new program because of the emphasis on data protection and privacy in the E.U.

The panelists agreed that the issue of vaccination passports has become politicized in the U.S., which Mohapatra said was “unfortunate.”

“Some of the reasons why they become political hot rods are not related to either the practical, ethical, or legal issues,” she said. “They're based on no government intervention, distrust of any kind of government intervention in your lives.”

Still, as proposals for vaccine passports become a reality, Cohen said he hopes the federal government can implement one “single, unified, super cybersecure” mechanism, rather than leaving it in the hands of state governments or private companies.

“It would be great if the federal government took on this aspect of building the highway, even if they don't want to enforce the rules of the road,” he said.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.