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The Ethics Of 'Vaccine Passports'


President Biden announced today that all adult Americans will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in just under two weeks.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Many states have already opened up to all adults, but beginning April 19, every adult in every state, every adult in this country is eligible to get in line to get a COVID vaccination.

CHANG: It's still going to be a while, though, for lots of reasons before everyone or even most people get vaccinated. And as they do, it's likely some places where people gather will institute use of what has been called a vaccine passport. Now, this is an easy, digital way to confirm that you have been vaccinated. The idea is that with proof of your status, you could do things like board a cruise or attend a ball game in person at an actual stadium. But there are ethical issues around this idea, which is something Dr. Zeke Emanuel has been thinking about. He's a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former member of President Biden's Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.


ZEKE EMANUEL: Nice to be here. Thank you, Ailsa, for having me.

CHANG: Well, it's very nice to have you. So before we get into this debate about vaccine passports, you mentioned in a piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association last year that we shouldn't even call them so-called vaccine passports. Why is that?

EMANUEL: Well, because it's really not a passport to necessarily cross borders. It's a certification. It's providing information about what your status is in some area.

CHANG: I see. It could be potentially confusing to call it a passport.


CHANG: OK. And exactly why do you think that they are a good idea, this sort of presentation of physical certification of your vaccine status?

EMANUEL: Well, we're all under substantial restrictions now because of COVID. If you have a passport, that allows us to get to more normal behavior. And in public health, there's a principle that you should use the least restrictive method necessary. And this allows us to say, those people who've gotten vaccinated, you don't have to adhere to certain restrictions because you are now immune. You're not likely to pass or transmit the virus.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about some of the ways that people have pushed back on this idea. A couple of Republican governors have already signed executive orders limiting or outright prohibiting the use of these so-called vaccine passports. And, you know, critics say that they have privacy concerns.

EMANUEL: I completely am sympathetic to two major objections. One is - I won't say privacy only, but it's a constellation of issues that - you want this information limited, and you want to control the information. You don't want some big tech company like Facebook to commercialize it or to merge it with other information and then use it for their advantage but not necessarily for your health. And second, I think there are legitimate concerns. Does everyone have equal access to the vaccine? Are we being fair in who's getting the vaccine, who's getting the passport? Or as we've seen, there's disproportionate availability of the vaccine in certain communities. And I think those are two quite legitimate concerns.

CHANG: The White House has already indicated that it is disinclined to mandate their use. So how useful would these vaccine passports be in opening things up if there were no mandate ultimately?

EMANUEL: The federal government may be disinclined to mandate them, but that doesn't mean that many others won't be inclined to mandate them. I think they're inevitable if only, you know, that the initial use case scenario will be international travel or maybe even some domestic travel. And I think from there, it's going to snowball, frankly.

CHANG: Dr. Zeke Emanuel, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former member of President Biden's Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, thank you very much for joining us today.

EMANUEL: My pleasure and honor.

Thank you, Ailsa, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.