Passengers check-in over the counter in Singapore on 29 November, 2021 for crossing the border by bus through the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Singapore and Malaysia's southern state of Johor. (Photo: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

Passengers check-in over the counter in Singapore on 29 November, 2021 for crossing the border by bus through the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Singapore and Malaysia's southern state of Johor. (Photo: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

A Regional Digital Vaccine Certificate in ASEAN, Posthaste

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ASEAN needs to work on a common standard for the certification of vaccination statuses. This would facilitate safe and unrestrained movement as borders open up again.

Despite a jump in the number of infections stemming from the Omicron variant, the ASEAN region remains unwavering in opening up travel. Over the past weeks, some good news has started to trickle in. Singapore agreed to open up a travel bubble with Batam and Bintan, this adding to the 24 countries which already have Vaccinated Travel Lanes with the island republic. Cambodia has finally opened up to all vaccinated travellers. Thailand has re-introduced quarantine-free travel to tourists beginning from February.

It is expected that more borders will open shortly and consequently, more people will resume business and leisure travel around the region. This could result in much-crowded transit points such as airports, ports, train and bus stations, especially if testing and the checking of vaccination records are still required. In order to create a more coordinated approach to facilitate safe and unrestrained movement, ASEAN must expedite a regional digital vaccine certificate which harmionises travellers’ Covid-19 vaccination status.

The proposal to create such a certificate is not entirely new. It was discussed at the ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting in March last year. The focus then was to speed up the opening up of sectors most hard hit, such as the tourism industry. At the opening of the 40th ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Sihanoukville earlier this month, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated his support for ASEAN to study and develop a common ASEAN-wide system for vaccine certification.

Currently, vaccine certification in ASEAN countries is highly fragmented. For instance, a traveller from Singapore might need to transfer her vaccination certificate from TraceTogether (a Singaporean digital application for contract tracing and displaying one’s vaccination status) to PeduliLindungi (a similar application in Indonesia) if she wants to travel to and around Indonesia. Similarly, a foreigner who wants to travel from Malaysia to Vietnam will need two things: getting his vaccination status certified by MySejahtera in Malaysia (an app similar to TraceTogether); he might still need to authenticate his vaccination status through PC-Covid, the Vietnamese equivalent of PeduliLindungi. To compound matters, some ASEAN countries, such as Laos, do not have digital certificates and are still in the process of delivering digital Covid-19 vaccination certificates with a QR code.

Covid-19 may be the crisis of a generation, but enhancing ASEAN’s regional infrastructure for connectivity will produce benefits for generations to come.

As such, it can be frustrating for travellers to ensure that their vaccination status shows up in the local application, not to mention the time spent waiting for the approval. For local health authorities, this international paperwork checking could indeed increase their heavy work burden. These authorities are already occupied with the need to accelerate vaccine delivery and continue contact tracing. 

What is an ideal regional vaccine certificate then? Ideally, technologies could help to standardise fragmented systems across ASEAN. Thus, ASEAN citizens could travel seamlessly across the region with a certified vaccine passport. Also, foreigners who travel to the region do not need to register on each country’s local application. The EU Digital COVID Certificate, which facilitates the free movement of EU citizens and recognises vaccine certificates from 33 non-EU countries, can serve as a precedent.

What should a regional vaccine system should look like? First, ASEAN countries can build a gateway system to connect to national vaccine certifications. Similar to a mobile secure gateway — an industry term for a system that provides secure communication between digital applications — this system ensures that vaccination data between mobile applications in different countries flow seamlessly. Singapore, for instance uses the CommonTrust Network (CTN) or Vaccination Credential to recognise a wide range of vaccination certificates. The WHO suggests that countries work towards the uniformisation of data labelling first. This should include standard information such as brand of vaccine, manufacturer, number of doses, health worker identifier and data validity. While theoretically plausible, such a gateway system might be challenging in practice, especially if countries have additional rules, treatments, and requirements on the type of vaccine approved. 

Alternatively, ASEAN countries can also consider a regional certifier model. This model will require ASEAN governments to appoint an independent institution that provides travellers with a regional certified vaccine passport. ASEAN governments must pool their resources and maintain the service delivery together. This requires an additional financial commitment that could be borne by both governments and travellers. There might be risks of data leakages and breaches from such a centralised model, especially if it involves a third-party provider. But regulatory requirements must be put in place beforehand. 

A feasibility study is needed to decide what is best for the region to ensure safe and secure mobility. Like many ASEAN projects to improve connectivity, the devil is always in the details, and the coordination. The investment needed to build such digital infrastructure might be expensive and delicate but in the longer-run should prove to be worthwhile. Another outbreak might happen soon. Worse, another pandemic requiring a different type of vaccine might be needed in the immediate term. Travellers and health officials might still need to certify various vaccine statuses continuously.  

What if the pandemic ends soon or becomes endemic like the common flu? Will it be worthwhile for ASEAN countries to invest in such a regional vaccine certificate? Arguably, ASEAN governments might be reluctant to build such a new digital infrastructure; after all, ASEAN is still working towards the realisation of a single market. Those with a longer-term view, however, should see the benefits of a regional vaccine certificate. The backbone of this regional infrastructure can be repurposed to encourage the movement of people across the region, such as to facilitate intra-ASEAN visa applications for business travel and employment. It can also be remodelled to provide certification for academic and professional credentials so that workers are encouraged to find employment opportunities across the region.

Covid-19 may be the crisis of a generation, but enhancing ASEAN’s regional infrastructure for connectivity will produce benefits for generations to come. Covid-19 or no, it has become more timely for ASEAN to expedite regional digital vaccine certification.

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