To restart travel in the pandemic era, we need an int’l health pass we can trust
Bradley Perkins/ SCMP
Establishing travel bubbles is a good first step. But the challenge is connecting them, and there is no “one size fits all” set of measures for all bubbles or even countries. It would be impossible to reach agreement on this on a global basis. Each country needs the ability to implement its own flexible and nuanced border policies based on more reliable assessments of the health status of incoming travellers. A key point is that detection of infection improves significantly by testing more than once during the usual incubation period of five to six days. Testing 72 to 96 hours before departure, and then again on arrival, covers a single incubation period well. Adding a health declaration that checks for clinical symptoms and risk factors provides additional biosecurity. What is needed to reliably test twice during an incubation period across two countries is a system to combine test results from certified labs across borders and time zones. At present, Covid-19 test results for travel are shared via printed paper – or photos of the paper – from unknown labs, often in languages that are foreign to those inspecting them. No standard format or certification system exists, and that void opens the way for many reported cases of counterfeit results.
The good news is that data from tests can be administered via a secure system for travellers to provide documentation while also protecting their privacy. My views are based on two decades at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), investigating and controlling epidemics and developing vaccines around the world. Today, as chief medical officer of The Commons Project, I have helped develop what we call the “common trust framework”. Countries throughout the region can adopt this framework developed by the World Economic Forum and The Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss-based non-profit that builds digital platforms for the common good. The CommonPass framework for health status verification is designed to ensure that only verifiable lab results and vaccination records from trusted sources are presented for the purposes of cross-border travel. CommonPass has been trialled by Cathay Pacific in Asia and will be trialled by United Airlines between London and New York. The pass allows travellers to control their own data, while sharing their “green light” or “red light” status with local health officials under a regime agreed to across borders. The added benefit of cross-border trust in test results is that it lays the groundwork for inclusion of Covid-19 vaccination in the health status. Travellers can always take additional tests, but they cannot be revaccinated each time they cross a border. Scaling testing for pandemic-era travel first requires addressing the notion that there is not sufficient testing capacity. Tests generally are not – and definitely should not be – in short supply at this point in the pandemic. Some countries face public testing shortages, so testing for travellers must not impinge on these constrained resources. As one example, Collinson, a travel medical services company, says it can do 24,500 tests daily for travellers arriving in the UK, and that these will in no way impinge on public supplies. For governments, the CommonPass framework provides a more reliable means of assessing the health status of travellers and gives them the flexibility to adapt their entry requirements as the pandemic evolves, including whether and what type of lab tests or vaccinations to require.