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Vaccine passports can take lessons from FinTech as world opens up

Lim Hui Jie
Lim Hui Jie • 8 min read
Vaccine passports can take lessons from FinTech as world opens up
How can we fly safely again? The FinTech industry may have some lessons for us.
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When the government announced on Saturday, Oct 9, that it has expanded the number of vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) that allow quarantine-free travel, many Singaporeans immediately felt a sense of relief and joy.

Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) website crashed briefly; and both SIA and ground handler Sats’ shares reacted positively when the market opened the following Monday.

The reaction should not be surprising. After all, most of us have been cooped up in the country for the better part of two years. The possibility of travelling to France, South Korea, the US and so on, with fewer restrictions, is certainly something to look forward to — and applicable to Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike.

However, a key detail needs to be ironed out: If Singapore opens up more VTLs, how will vaccination status for overseas travellers be verified, considering the various vaccination certificates and standards used around the world?

Singapore’s transport minister S Iswaran said the city-state will accept digital proof of vaccination from any of the VTL countries. But even that means a smorgasbord of vaccine apps and certificates.

Travellers from the UK will need the National Health Service Covid Pass, while those from France, Denmark, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy require an EU Digital Covid certificate. Meanwhile, travellers coming from Canada and the US will be allowed to present their SMART Health Card, used on the CommonTrust Network. Those from Brunei can use the Bruhealth app released by Singapore’s Ministry of Health, while travellers from South Korea are understood to use the COOV app as their digital passport.

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One example of the problems that could arise was reported by The New York Times on Oct 8, in an article about how English expatriate Sally Morrow could not have her Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine certificate recognised when she returned to the UK despite being fully vaccinated in Turkey. She was therefore forced to go through the UK’s full quarantine measures.

As The New York Times puts it, many countries are open to international travellers, with the rolling out of various vaccination programmes.

However, “fragmented rules about which vaccines will be accepted and what documentation is required, as well as a lack of compatibility between vaccine apps, have left many travellers confused and frustrated over where they can visit without extraordinary headaches and restrictions,” it adds.

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Against this backdrop, one might wonder if there is a better way of managing this than having to run the risk of being stopped at border control just because an officer cannot verify the authenticity of a vaccine passport. While this may seem like a herculean task, it is actually already being done — but in a different form.

Digital identity and vaccine passports

According to online mobile payments and identity verification company Jumio, which is based in California, the vaccine passport verification process should draw some lessons from how banks conduct their know-your-client (KYC) process.

In an interview with The Edge Singapore, Jumio’s vice president for Asia Pacific, Frederic Ho, says that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jumio was working on the ability to verify people’s identities so as to provide financial services to them. Some citizens were unable to access government and financial services as they did not have an official identity in the national registry.

As such, he thinks that countries can learn from the company’s work on identity verification.

“Now, it’s no longer just about providing financial access and banking services. It is having the ability to identify a person’s vaccination status or their test results so that they can travel around in their own country and live as normal a life as possible,” Ho points out.

Given the fact that there is no magical, all-powerful, world-spanning database that has everyone’s vaccination status and health records, it would be difficult in the short term to go back to the idea of simply showing up at the airport, scanning your biometric passport and walking through immigration.

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Ho says the “holy grail” for a vaccine passport needs to achieve two objectives: convenience and accuracy.

The first problem to address, he thinks, is the risk that travellers might be stopped at border control without the assurance that they can pass through seamlessly.

Ho suggests having some sort of a pre-departure visa application process where the traveller can upload their vaccine certificates, test results and supporting documents before they buy their air ticket.

If approved, the traveller can simply attach the “vaccine visa” to his passport and have peace of mind to go to the airport and board the plane, knowing that he will be allowed through border control.

See: Singapore to extend vaccinated travel lanes to Australia and Switzerland from Nov 8

It is like applying for a traditional visa, Ho says. “The host country may ask for my previous bank statements, my marriage certificate, or some other information to approve my visa before I fly to my destination knowing that I’m already approved,” he explains. This way, authorities will have the time and space to reliably authenticate travellers’ statuses, and travellers can travel without worrying they might have to turn back at the airport.

Lessons from FinTech

Countries that can achieve the goals of both accuracy and convenience for travellers will have a lot to gain as borders re-open, says Ho.

For example, someone flying from the US to India can transit in various places like Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. It is likely that the traveller will choose to transit in the city that can give him the assurance that his visa and vaccination status will be easily understood so that the immigration clearance process is convenient and clear of unexpected roadblocks.

Can Singapore achieve that? Ho observes that the country does have a solid technology base, given that its testing, vaccination and health records are digitised and linked, unlike some places where vaccination records are still paper-based and national health records are scattered in various databases.

“I think Singapore definitely has the [necessary] technology pieces in place — it has digital identity systems for citizens and foreigners coming in alike, and the TraceTogether app [links that information with the respective vaccination records on] a single digital platform,” says Ho.

He also believes many countries are keeping an eye on Singapore to see how its VTLs pan out, giving the country a “moment of leadership” to model the opening up of the travel industry. “I think a lot of countries will be keenly watching, not only just from a policy and travel numbers perspective, but also from infrastructure readiness, in terms of the moving parts required to be set in place so that they can build their own travel reopening progammes,” he says.

But Ho acknowledges that the “vaccine visas” are a temporary solution, and the more permanent solution is for countries to have a data sharing arrangement for their citizens’ health records so that the process can be made more seamless.

The Straits Times reported that this was brought up at a regional level at the Special Ministerial Conference for Asean Digital Public Health, where Indonesian health minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin stressed the need to reform the global health architecture, establish a mechanism for sharing aid and standardise health protocols across countries.

As countries today have different pandemic travel requirements, Budi said Asean should have a common health passport or digital platform, such as the TraceTogether app, to facilitate the reopening of travel.

While Ho admits it is difficult to comment on the geopolitical factors that will affect the success of these data sharing arrangements, he is of the view that it is in countries’ interest that the vaccine status of their residents be shared across borders, so that travel reopening and outbound travel can resume with the assurance that the host country’s residents are also safe.

But will this need for technology mean that countries with more capital will get to capitalise on this wave faster, creating a gap that will separate developing and developed countries?

Ho does not think so. Using Jumio’s experience as a guide, he observes that when the company aimed to enroll the unbanked citizens around Southeast Asia for financial services, there was an understanding that the revenue per new customer in this category may not be high.

Therefore, Ho says the FinTech companies realised that the cost for enrolling needs to be very low. As such, they came up with low-cost solutions and consumer technologies utilising what most consumers already have — namely, their mobile phone — “[instead of] heavy investments in physical branch offices and huge processes”.

He notes that the industry has developed a very cost-effective model towards identity verification and providing digital services, allowing many more people to participate in the economy because they have a digital bank account.

“You can take that same model today and apply it to what we need to do in the Covid world,” Ho suggests. “We learnt all this in the last five years from the FinTech industry, and now it’s really applying this for something even more critical, which is the vaccination status of the people.”

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