'This is national security': Health passport going to be necessary for future global travel

Travel is bouncing back just in time for the holidays and many are excited to be traveling and seeing family again.
Travel is bouncing back just in time for the holidays and many are excited to be traveling and seeing family again. Photo credit Getty Images
By , KCBS Radio

As travel bounces back just in time for the holidays, many are excited to be traveling and seeing family again.

Especially since the United States intends to reopen borders in a couple of weeks starting Nov. 8, having larger implications on what global policies on travel might soon follow.

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"We’ve learned that certain vaccines can give protection, and if people are vaccinated, their chance of bringing a virus and spreading it is dramatically lower," said Dr. David Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at University of Southern California's school of medicine and school of engineering and the founding director of USC’s Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, on Tuesday’s Ask an Expert.

"This is setting up cogent policies to enable commerce travel to happen," he told KCBS Radio’s Holly Quan and Dan Mitchinson, which is required in order to "get back to normal."

Airplanes themselves are generally quite safe, he said. Aircraft themselves have air flow systems that filter the air every three to four minutes which helps kill the virus. There are very few cases reported of COVID-19 being spread on an airplane.

But some countries are better to travel to right now than others.

"I would be hesitant to go into some areas," said Agus. "Some areas of the world, no question, I would go there and I think it’s safe."

Those that currently have high case rates and low vaccination rates are still a concern. And it’s made even more difficult because there’s no overarching oversight on travel policies right now.

"There’s nobody in charge to say, 'Well this vaccine protects against delta, so the country doing that, you’re okay, but this vaccine doesn’t,'" said Agus.

There are some vaccines that are recognized in the U.S. as effective, including Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. But others that are used in other countries, like the AstraZeneca vaccine in the United Kingdom, are not. This can complicate travel to and from the US going forward.

While it has been proven that AstraZeneca does work against the delta variant, the Sputnik vaccine out of Russia and a couple of vaccines out of China, do not. They were effective against the first iteration of the virus, but not anymore, said Agus, making policy increasingly "fuzzy."

People traveling to the U.S. from certain countries may be required to quarantine upon arrival, while others might not. Some countries have even more aggressive tactics, like Israel, where officials conduct a blood test upon arrival for antibodies to the vaccine, to better prevent possible fraud.

Tools like the Good Health Pass Collaborative, a consortium of digital health providers that can validate a person’s vaccination in a more widely recognized way, can help ease the travel process from country to country. "Over time I think you’re going to see all of us have this ID, this immunity passport, if you will, to be able to get into countries," said Agus.

The health I.D. should be viewed as the same as a traditional passport, he said, which has become the norm for international travel. "This is national security," said Agus. "Every country is going to have to do this, and we’re going to have to be more normalized to it."

Some have voiced opposition to this type of identification for privacy reasons, and those skeptics are welcome to believe what they do, Agus said.

They’ll just have to forfeit their ability to travel to certain places. "We’re going to need to validate that you have the immunity and that you’re not going to harm people in the area you’re going."

It boils down to an exchange of some privacy for public safety, he said. "We are one community, we are one world."

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