Washington, DC, USA - Closeup view of December, 23, 2020: COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card by CDC on blurred documents background.

Key Considerations for the Ethical Design of COVID-19 Vaccine Passports

By Chloe Reichel

States, employers, retailers, and other industries are now grappling with how to update mask policies in light of recent CDC guidance, which suggests vaccinated individuals may remove their face coverings indoors. 

But without a system in place to discern who has been vaccinated, the guidance poses a major risk: unvaccinated individuals, who can still contract and spread the virus, may also opt to go maskless. 

COVID-19 digital health passes, often called vaccine passports, may prove useful as a tool to relax mask policies. Vaccine passports can help to verify whether individuals may safely enter a space without a face covering.

Their ethical implementation, however, is contingent upon a number of factors: first and foremost, equitable access to vaccines. Other considerations include minimizing distrust, accessibility, risks of discrimination, and privacy protections.

For policy makers considering the implementation of COVID-19 vaccine credentialing programs, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University have developed a road map highlighting key considerations for their ethical design.

This post provides a summary of key considerations and responsive policy recommendations presented in the paper to guide more equitable implementation of vaccine passports and to minimize distrust.

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Cartoon of contact tracing for COVID-19.

A Critical Analysis of the Eurocentric Response to COVID-19: Data Colonialism

By Hayley Evans

The international response to COVID-19 has paid insufficient attention to realities in the Global South, making the response Eurocentric in several ways.

This series of blog posts looks at three aspects of the COVID-19 response that underscore this Eurocentrism. The first post in this series will scrutinize the digital aspect of the international response to COVID-19. In creating and promoting technological solutions that are impractical and ineffective in the Global South, this digital focus has afforded asymmetric protection to those located in the Global North.

This series draws on primary research conducted remotely with diverse actors on the ground in Colombia, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom, as well as secondary research gathered through periodicals, webinars, an online course in contact tracing, and membership in the Ecological Rights Working Group of the Global Pandemic Network. I have written about previous findings from this work here.

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Home innovation technology concept illustration.

Call for Abstracts — 2022 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference: Diagnosing in the Home

Contribute to the 2022 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference and subsequent book project!

Through October 14, 2021, the Petrie-Flom Center is accepting abstracts for its annual conference. The 2022 annual conference will focus on ethical, legal, and regulatory challenges and opportunities around at home digital health technology.

This conference will engage with the vision for a 21st century health care system that embraces the potential of at home digital products to support diagnoses, improve care, encourage caregivers, maximize pandemic resilience, and allow individuals to stay within the home when preferable. The goals of this conference and subsequent book project are to consider the ethical, sociological, regulatory, and legal challenges and opportunities presented by the implementation of digital products that support clinical diagnosis and/or treatment in patients’ homes over the next decade.

Interested in submitting an abstract, but want to know more about what we’re looking for? Read through the following frequently asked questions.

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Key Takeaways from Petrie-Flom Center Discussion on Vaccine Passports

As mask mandates fall to the wayside, COVID-19 digital health passes, often called vaccine passports, hold promise as a tool to verify whether individuals may enter a space without a face covering.

Vaccine passports, however, also pose a number of ethical and legal challenges. Panelists discussed these concerns during an April 28 webinar hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics titled, “Vaccine Passports: A Path to the New Normal?”

This article highlights key points made during the conversation.

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Fake Vaccine Cards and the Challenges of Decentralized Health Data

By Carmel Shachar and Chloe Reichel

Soon the U.S. will have vaccinated all adults who are not vaccine hesitant. Our next key challenges will be reopening workplaces, restaurants, schools, and other public areas, as well as encouraging vaccine uptake among those who are hesitant or resistant to the vaccine.

Vaccine passports or certifications could be a tool used to address both of those challenges.

But our approach to health care data management may undermine this next stage of the pandemic response.

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EU flag and digital health pass.

Are COVID Certificates the Answer to Safe EU Travel During the Pandemic?

By Iris Goldner Lang

On March 17, the European Commission put forward its Proposal for a Regulation on Digital Green Certificates which would facilitate safe EU cross-border movement for purposes of work and tourism.

Considering the length of the EU decision-making process and the technical work that will need to be done, the digital green certificates will not be ready for use until late June or July this year.

The proposed certificates will include three categories of EU citizens and third-country nationals legally staying/residing in the EU: those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, those who have recovered from COVID-19, and those who can produce a negative test result. A non-EU national travelling to the EU – such as a U.S. citizen – could request a digital green certificate from an EU Member State he/she is travelling to, by providing all the relevant information to the national authorities, which would then have to assess whether to issue the certificate.

The proposed EU certificates would also allow the Commission to issue a decision recognizing certificates issued by third countries to EU citizens and their family members, where such certificates meet quality standards and are interoperable with the EU system. Additionally, the Commission intends to make certificates compatible with systems in third countries, such as the U.S,, and is open to global initiatives.

EU Member States’ reactions to this initiative have been diverse. While some Member States – particularly those dependent on tourism – such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Iceland, Denmark, and Spain – support the initiative, others – like Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands – express concerns. In the meantime, both Greece and Cyprus have reached agreements with Israel that should enable their citizens who have been vaccinated to travel between these two EU Member States and Israel without the need to quarantine.

This blog post examines what the European Commission sees as the three main advantages of its Proposal for digital green certificates – the first being that digital green certificates facilitate EU cross-border movement, the second that they preclude more restrictive national measures, and the third that they prevent discrimination.

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Passport in suitcase.

Ethical, Legal, and Scientific Challenges for COVID-19 Vaccine Passports

By Chloe Reichel

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widespread, passports that certify immunization status may facilitate a return to normalcy, write Lawrence O. Gostin, I. Glenn Cohen, and Jana Shaw in a viewpoint published today in JAMA.

But these vaccine passports, or digital health passes, are not without scientific, legal, and ethical challenges.

I asked Gostin, Faculty Director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, Cohen, Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, and Shaw, a professor of pediatrics at Upstate Medical University, about the key areas of concern and promise for vaccine passports. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, follows.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

Telehealth and the Future of Long-Term Care

Join us on Wednesday, April 7 for further discussion of these issues during our virtual event, “Triumphs & Tensions of the Telehealth Boom.

By Tara Sklar

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend away from providing health care and long-term care in institutional settings in ways not previously imagined; the result of a reckoning with the massacre that disproportionately killed hundreds of thousands of older adults living in nursing homes or similar congregate facilities, along with the staff who cared for them.

Beyond the immediate staffing and infection control issues at hand, this juncture leads to a larger question, in the U.S. and abroad: how can we best care for an older population in the decades — and not just years — ahead?

The major advances and shortfalls that have surfaced during the pandemic around telehealth and its related technologies in digital home health care are essential to this discussion.

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Doctor Holding Cell Phone. Cell phones and other kinds of mobile devices and communications technologies are of increasing importance in the delivery of health care. Photographer Daniel Sone.

Viewing Telehealth Policymaking Through the Lens of Disability

Join us on Wednesday, April 7 for further discussion of these issues during our virtual event, “Triumphs & Tensions of the Telehealth Boom.

By Laura C. Hoffman

As a means for delivering health care, telehealth will only be as successful as it is accessible to our most vulnerable populations.

Although the utilization of telehealth has the great potential to increase access to health care while simultaneously reducing barriers to access for individuals, people with disabilities face multiple barriers to telehealth. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted these challenges.

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green, red, and yellow qr codes on phones.

The Promise and Pitfalls of China’s QR Codes as Health Certificates

This article is adapted from a longer paper published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology (JOLT)’s Digest section. To access the original paper, please visit JOLT.

By April Xiaoyi Xu

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, China has successfully managed to contain the spread of the virus, due in large part to its technological strategy, which uses QR codes as a kind of health certificate.

These color-coded QR codes are automatically generated using cell phone data. Green indicates that an individual is healthy and can move freely, yellow signals that the user must quarantine for up to seven days, and red for fourteen days. The basis for these determinations, as well as the extent of the data collected in order to make them, remains opaque.

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