The Biden administration and private companies are working to develop a standard for a “vaccine passport” that could be used as the country tries to reopen in the coming months.
The effort has gained steam following President Biden’s pledge that the nation will begin to return to normal this summer and with a growing number of companies saying they will require proof of vaccination before reopening for business, the Washington Post reported.
The administration’s initiative has been driven largely by arms of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including an office devoted to health information technology, said five officials who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity. The White House this month took on a bigger role in coordinating government agencies involved in the work, with a goal of announcing updates in the coming days, one official told the newspaper.
The initiative has required that officials coordinate across dozens of agencies and a variety of experts. The passports are expected to be free and available through applications for smartphones, which could display a scannable code similar to an airline boarding pass, the Post reported. Americans without smartphone access should be able to print out the passports, developers have said.
U.S. officials face numerous challenges, including data privacy and health-care equity. They want to make sure all Americans will be able to get credentials that prove they have been vaccinated, but also want to set up systems that are not easily hacked and design passports that cannot be counterfeited, the Post reported.
There are already 17 initiatives underway identified by the Biden Administration to try to accomplish this, the Post reported. Those initiatives — such as a World Health Organization-led effort and a digital pass devised by IBM that is being tested in New York state.
One of the teams working on vaccine passports is the Vaccination Credential Initiative, a coalition trying to standardize how data in vaccination records is tracked.
“The busboy, the janitor, the waiter that works at a restaurant, wants to be surrounded by employees that are going back to work safely — and wants to have the patrons ideally be safe as well,” Brian Anderson, a physician at Mitre, a nonprofit that runs federally funded research centers, who is helping lead the initiative, told the Post.
Anderson’s team is aiming to release its free software standards in April, hoping developers will use them to help build digital vaccine records that allow people to show they have been inoculated. The Vaccination Credential Initiative includes the Mayo Clinic, Microsoft and more than 225 other organizations, the Post reported.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is participating in the WHO’s effort to create “digital vaccination certificates,” is preparing to play a role in determining which organizations will credential and issue the certificates, in addition to informing the public, CDC documents reviewed by the Post show.
Still, public health experts said the Biden administration needs to tread softly with vaccine passports.
“If it became a government mandate, it would go down a dark road very quickly,” said Brian Castrucci, head of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health group funding research into vaccine hesitancy. “It becomes a credential. It becomes a ‘needing your papers,’ if you will. That could be dangerous — and it could turn off people.”
“It has to be that everyone can get it, and it’s their choice, as it were,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania bioethics expert who advised Biden’s transition team on the coronavirus. “The one thing I am concerned [about] is that some people won’t be able to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons.”
Biden sets new goal of 200 million shots by 100th day in office
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the country will put 200 million coronavirus vaccine doses into the arms of Americans by his 100th day in office, doubling the goal he first set when he was inaugurated.
“We will, by my 100th day in office, have administered 200 million shots in people’s arms,” Mr. Biden said, announcing his new goal at the start of his first news conference. “That’s right — 200 million shots in 100 days. I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has even come close.”
The goal appears attainable: As of Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 143 million shots had been administered, and that 15.5 percent of the American population was fully vaccinated.
The United States is averaging about 2.5 million vaccine doses a day. If that pace continues, about half of the nation’s population will be at least partly vaccinated by mid-May, The New York Times said.
Vaccine makers are now hitting their stride, and Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have promised enough doses to inoculate all 260 million adult Americans by May. In June, the first vaccine producers, Pfizer and Moderna, are expected to deliver another 100 million doses — enough to vaccinate 50 million more people, The New York Times reported.
Officials say the nation will soon reach a point where the supply of vaccine outpaces demand. At that point, the biggest challenge will be convincing still skeptical Americans to get the shots, and deciding what to do with a growing stockpile, the Times reported.
Vaccine hesitancy is particularly prominent among minorities and Republicans, the Times said.
Earlier Thursday, White House officials said the administration would spend $10 billion on congressionally-appropriated money to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines and build vaccine confidence in the hardest-hit and highest-risk communities.
AstraZeneca lowers efficacy rate of its COVID vaccine
Following a sharp rebuke from an independent oversight board over potentially misleading information on the effectiveness of its coronavirus vaccine, AstraZeneca released new data last Wednesday that showed the vaccine is slightly less effective than the company had claimed two days earlier.
After saying that the vaccine was 79 percent effective last Monday, the company said Wednesday that the vaccine was 76 percent effective at preventing COVID-19.
“The [latest] primary analysis is consistent with our previously released interim analysis, and confirms that our COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective in adults, including those aged 65 years and over,” Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of BioPharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca, said in a company news release. “We look forward to filing our regulatory submission for Emergency Use Authorization in the U.S. and preparing for the rollout of millions of doses across America.”
The latest results do strengthen the case for the vaccine’s efficacy, but they may not restore AstraZeneca’s credibility with U.S. health officials, theTimes said.
When it released its interim trial results on Monday, AstraZeneca ignored dozens of recently confirmed COVID-19 cases that had cropped up in trial volunteers before mid-February, the Times reported.
In a letter to the company and federal health officials later that day, the independent board that was overseeing the clinical trial issued a highly unusual reprimand to AstraZeneca for appearing to cherry-pick data to make its vaccine appear more effective, the Times reported.
“Decisions like this are what erode public trust in the scientific process,” the oversight board’s letter said. The members of the monitoring board wrote that their statistical modeling had found that the vaccine might have a lower efficacy rate — between 69 and 74 percent — if the COVID-19 cases in question were included in the analysis, the Times reported.
It was not clear why the oversight board’s projection turned out to be lower than the figure in AstraZeneca’s latest results. Those statistics could still change because there are still 14 possible COVID-19 cases that AstraZeneca officials have not yet classified as actual cases, according to the company’s statement.
The dispute over AstraZeneca’s U.S. trial results follows a safety scare in Europe that prompted more than a dozen countries to temporarily suspend use of the vaccine. European regulators said last week that a review had found the shot to be safe, after a small number of people who had been vaccinated developed blood clots and abnormal bleeding. The U.S. trial did not turn up any signs of such safety problems, the Times said.
A global scourge
By Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 30.2 million while the death toll neared 548,000, according to a Times tally. On Monday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with over 3.6 million cases; Texas with nearly 2.8 million cases; Florida with over 2 million cases; New York with over 1.8 million cases; and Illinois with over 1.2 million cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In Brazil, the coronavirus case count was over 12.5 million by Monday, with more than 312,000 deaths, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. India had over 12 million cases and nearly 162,000 deaths as of Monday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 127.2 million on Monday, with nearly 2.8 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: Washington Post; The New York Times