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Countries want tourists back if they’re vaccinated. That may lead to vaccine passports.

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A picture taken on March 3, 2021 in Paris shows a vaccine vial reading "COVID-19 vaccine" on top of a European passport.

"The train’s left the station. It's happening," says Jen Kates, director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "So many countries have said they're doing this. It's just a matter of how to make it work," and how to make it as fair and equitable as possible. Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

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The European Union has announced that some time this summer, it plans to reopen to tourists, including travelers from the U.S. who are fully vaccinated. But determining who has been vaccinated will require a system.

A lot of countries that rely on tourism are in a hurry to welcome visitors back, said Glenn Melnick, a health economist at the University of Southern California.

“There’s tremendous pressure to reopen for a lot of countries, right? Thailand, for example,” Melnick said. Tourism accounted for about 12% of its GDP before the pandemic.

“France is the same,” Melnick said. “Other European countries that, you know, in the summer, [there are] tremendous economic benefits of opening up.”

With COVID still very much a threat, a growing number of countries see vaccine passports as a way to get those economic benefits safely. Lots of countries already require vaccination for yellow fever and recommend it for other diseases. But Jen Kates, director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said there is no international system for COVID yet.

“Each country is kind of doing its own thing,” Kates said. “And so that means that there’s potentially different systems, there’s different vaccines that are recognized.”

It also means countries are also still figuring out what to require as proof of vaccination and how to verify that proof when there’s no international database. In the age of Photoshop, those white cards the CDC is issuing are easy to forge.

In spite of all those issues, Kates said, at this point, it’s not really a question of if vaccine passports are a good idea.

“The train’s left the station. It’s happening,” she said. “So many countries have said they’re doing this. It’s just a matter of how to make it work,” and how to make it as fair and equitable as possible.

Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, said that right now requiring COVID vaccination to travel wouldn’t be equitable.

“In many ways, it will allow for a privileged minority to be able to travel easily, without restrictions, versus the vast majority of the people in this world today who have little chance of getting a vaccine anytime soon,” El-Sadr said.

In many countries, it could be a couple of years before there is enough vaccine to go around.

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