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Vaccine passports don't have to work to be effective

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As more Americans get vaccinated, there is increasing talk of "vaccine passports." There are strong emotional reactions to this idea, positive and negative, but my attempt at a more analytical view leads me to a conclusion that is not entirely satisfying (even to me): America should work to develop vaccine passports but never actually require them.

First, I am not impressed by the criticisms that vaccine passports will create an unfair two-tier society. COVID-19 already has done that. Not only are the 500,000 dead already in a highly disadvantageous "tier," but the U.S. has been divided between those who can work at home — often higher earners — and those who cannot. If a vaccine passport system can help clean up this mess and accelerate recovery, it is likely to increase fairness on average.

The biggest advantage of vaccine passports is that they would encourage people to get the vaccine. Many people who are indifferent about getting it but want to be able to fly or attend a sporting event would have a strong inducement to hurry up and claim their doses. Getting vaccinated would also boost their health and job prospects, as well as protect others.

So far, so good. What are the problems?

One issue is what exactly constitutes proof of vaccination. For my vaccinations, I have been issued a rather flimsy, easy-to-forge paper document from the Centers for Disease Control. Unlike a passport or a dollar bill, it has no embedded watermarks or other protections. Anyone with a moderately sophisticated copy machine could create many fake documents, or perhaps steal an existing stash of these documents and sell them on the black market. Once you have the documents, you can simply note that you have been vaccinated, and it is not easy for outside parties to dispute such claims.

Soon enough, of course, it may be easier for most adults to get a vaccine than to forge a vaccine passport. Still, U.S. laws and regulations work better when they can refer to clear, verifiable standards of evidence. It is hard to imagine a set of laws or procedures based on criteria so loose that they basically allow anyone to claim they are vaccinated. A more stringent standard, however, would be hard for most vaccinated Americans to meet.

Another knotty question is which vaccines will count for the passport. Pfizer’s, Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s for sure, but what if you are a U.S. citizen living in Canada who received AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has been approved by some 15 nations but not the U.S.? Is the federal government willing to tell a whole class of responsible individuals that they cannot fly on U.S. planes? Or will the vaccine-passport bureaucracy be willing to approve vaccines that the Food and Drug Administration will not?

These dilemmas can become stickier yet. What about Sputnik, the Russian vaccine, or the numerous Chinese vaccines, which are being administered around the world, including in Mexico?

Do Americans really wish to create a country to which most foreigners would not be very welcome? Furthermore, what counts as proof of foreign vaccination? Some Asian countries, including China, are creating elaborate and supposedly secure vaccine verification systems, using advanced information technology. Good for them — but how would that connect with U.S. regulations? How many different passport systems would a flight attendant or gate agent have to read, interpret and render judgment upon?

The likely result of all this: Many foreign visitors to the U.S. would never quite know in advance whether they could board an airplane or attend a public event.

And how would the passport reflect any new vaccines deemed necessary? What if new COVID-19 strains require booster shots? What if you’ve had COVID and thus get only one shot for now rather than two, as many experts are recommending? What will happen as the number of vaccines around the world proliferates? Given the slowness of the FDA and CDC, it is hard to imagine any new U.S. approvals coming quickly. A vaccine passport system could end up being fetters not only for foreigners and anti-vaxxers but also for vaccinated Americans.

I thus arrive at my counterintuitive view: In order to encourage vaccinations, it may be permissible — even helpful — for the government to announce that a vaccine passport system will be put in place. But this is a case where the infamous lassitude of the federal bureaucracy may work in America’s favor. By the time a vaccine passport system is finally ready, maybe it will be rendered irrelevant by the success of America’s vaccination program.

Tyler Cowen wrote this piece for Bloomberg.

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