Experts are debating the pros and cons of covid-19 vaccine passports or other types of certification as they attempt to start reopening public spaces. The idea seems simple at first glance: Those who can prove they’ve been vaccinated against covid-19 might move around and do things that unvaccinated people wouldn’t.
There is preliminary evidence that vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use are “very effective.” Tech and health companies unveil proposals that use vaccination as a prerequisite for participating in various public activities, but the concept raises a host of questions about community health, equity, and what we really know about it. immunity against covid-19.
Nita Farahany is a leading expert on how technology and biosciences affect society. She is Professor of Law and Philosophy at Duke University, where she is also Director of the Initiative for Science and Society. From 2010 to 2017, she was part of a presidential committee on bioethics.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: Do we know enough about the science of covid-19 to use a vaccine pass system with confidence that it will prevent transmission?
A: We have limited data from the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna studies very early on that potentially suggests reduced transmission, but not elimination of transmission. A person can be vaccinated and not suffer from a heavy burden of disease if they become ill – in fact, they can be completely asymptomatic – but they can still pass the virus on to other people.
Q: We know the basics of vaccines starts to be distributed. How can a successful vaccine create inequalities?
A: Basing reintegration into society right when you get the vaccine might just reinforce the inequalities that have occurred. The confidence of minority populations in health and health facilities is currently very low. Conditioning their re-engagement in society on the basis of whether or not they take a vaccine when they already have such high levels of public mistrust is deeply problematic. I think it further erodes trust. This could set back vaccine policy, healthcare, and confidence in health and science even more than it has already done.
The people who are ready to take the vaccine and have a higher level of confidence, or who had access to it earlier due to wealth or networks, are the ones who would have the first access to jobs when businesses reopen. They would get first chance at schools and slot machines in each of these different activities, tickets to events. You end up with a much longer term impact of entrenching these inequalities that have arisen as part of the pandemic.