The White House has assembled a task force to create standards for digital vaccine certificates, but they have explicitly stated that implementation of these programs would be left to the private sector and that the federal government will not maintain or mandate such a system.
On March 28, 2021, The Washington Post published a story titled “Vaccine Passports’ Are on the Way, But Developing Them Won’t Be Easy.” That story discussed a Biden administration initiative “to develop a standard way of handling credentials … that would allow Americans to prove they have been vaccinated” against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Digital certificates, termed “vaccine passports” by some, would, in theory, be no different than the physical piece of paper given at the time of a COVID-19 vaccination, but would be available remotely and from anywhere in the world at any time. The introduction of this digital element, along with the broader notion of a society in which vaccination status could dictate a person’s ability to participate in certain activities, brings with it a host of privacy and ethical concerns that have turned the topic into a hot-button issue.
The Washington Post’s March 28 reporting centered on news that the Biden administration had begun assembling experts across a variety of federal agencies to — in the words of White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients — ensure “that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy.”
That reporting was misconstrued on social media, however, to suggest that the Biden administration is set to mandate a government-operated COVID-19 passport system that, according to the Twitter account of DiscloseTV, “Americans must have to engage in commerce.” Dan Diamond, one of the Washington Post journalists who reported the piece, responded to the Disclose tweet by saying “I am an author on the Washington Post Story. This is not what we wrote.”
Disclose TV’s framing, as we describe below, falsely suggested that the Biden administration will both mandate the use of such a certificate and also create and maintain the system that runs it. At the time of this reporting, neither assertion is true.
‘The Biden Administration’ Is Not Creating a COVID-19 Passport
As Diamond explained on Twitter, “Some businesses have said that proof of vaccination will be required; a range of private and public organizations are already racing ahead on designing passports; the Biden admin is working to set standards around what’s coming.” The problem is that regardless of the activities of the United States government, many private businesses, foreign countries, and other entities are already requiring, or will soon require, proof of vaccination for participation in a range of activities.
Most notably, the travel and airline industries have been pushing for digital vaccination certificates and lobbying the White House to standardize the process or technology underlying such documentation. The International Air Transport Association has already developed such a product themselves. “A Contactless Travel Pass portion of the app aims to enable passengers to create a ‘digital passport,’ upload official test and vaccination certificates, verify that they are sufficient for their itinerary, and then share those certificates,” reported The Washington Post in February 2021.
Many countries have implemented, or plan to implement, such a system as well. On March 17, 2021, for instance, the European Union announced plans to produce a “green passport” for travelers “to prove that they have been vaccinated, that they recovered from the virus or recently tested negative for it.” In February 2021, the government of Israel instituted a “Green Badge” system in which a QR code demonstrating someone’s vaccination status is required for access to things like “restaurants, event halls and conferences.”
One of the central challenges, according to slides from a Health and Human Services presentation obtained by The Washington Post, is that there are already at least 17 initiatives around the world attempting to produce such a product or system, and little standardization or coordination between many of them.
During a March 29, 2021, news conference, White House Senior Advisor to the Coronavirus Response Coordinator Andy Slavitt reiterated the administration’s position that they sought a regulatory role that left the implementation of any digital certification to the private sector:
This is going to hit all parts of society, and so naturally, the government is involved …. But unlike other parts of the world, the government here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of — of citizens.
We view this as something that the private sector is doing and will do. What’s important to us, and we’re leading an interagency process right now to go through these details, are that some important criteria be met with these credentials.
The Biden Administration Is Not Mandating Their Use
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on March 29, 2021, that “there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database, and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.” Slavitt explained to CNBC’s Shepard Smith on March 16, 2021, his view that “the public will be more reluctant to get vaccinated if they feel like the government, the federal government is playing too much of a role in that.”
The point of the work being performed by the White House’s interagency task force is to make sure that initiatives competing to build a framework for digital certification of vaccines adequately protect privacy and that any proposed solution does not contribute to widening health inequalities. In the view of the Biden administration, trust in such a solution would be better achieved through the private sector.
Because the Biden administration is not producing, maintaining, or mandating the use of digital vaccination certificates, the claim that they are “set to launch a COVID-19 passport that Americans must have to engage in commerce” is “False.”