Podcast 🎧 and blog: How soon back to normal? Five things to know about the digital vaccine certificate

07.04.2021 | Federico Plantera



Other than national healthcare systems, patients, and patience, the COVID-19 pandemic has also tested the degree of collaboration between countries in overcoming the crisis. With the vaccines developed and immunisation campaigns being rolled out, governments and international organisations are now seeking a way to harmonise how to exit the crisis with vaccine certificates.

In the latest Digital Transformation Talk organised by e-Governance Academy, decision-makers, and healthcare practitioners from both the public and private sector gathered to share views and proposals on how digital solutions can help us reopen our societies. The main proposals advanced are two – Digital Green Certificates at the European level, and Smart Vaccination Certificates on a global scale.


Reopening Europe with the Digital Green Certificate

In mid-March, the European Commission presented its plan to restore free movement between European member states – if not to pre-pandemic levels, at least closer to the normality we comfortably got used to. As designed, a Digital Green Certificate is seen as the key to resume international travel more safely, particularly with summer approaching.

According to Konstantin Hyppönen, DG SANTE, European CommissionThe Digital Green Certificate will be issued to EU citizens and their family members (regardless of their nationality), as well as to third country nationals who reside in the EU, and visitors with the right to travel within the union. It will serve as a proof that a person:

  • has been vaccinated against COVID-19;
  • has received a negative test result;
  • has recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection.

Available free of charge, in the official language of the issuing Member State and in English, the Digital Green Certificate can be issued either in digital form or on paper, to ensure inclusivity irrespective of the ownership or use of digital devices. Regardless of the format, in either cases a QR code will contain only the necessary information to verify, and a digital signature to ensure authenticity.

These certificates are meant as a temporary measure, to be suspended as the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the end of the health emergency internationally. Even more so, then, given the very timely nature of the measure, its approval, development, and adoption must happen in record time to be ready for the coming summer season.

Five conclusions on prerequisites, enablers, and trust

Thanks to the Digital Transformation Talk, we had a chance to look more closely not only into the details of the proposal, but also at the preconditions and enablers that are necessary to make it happen.

A salient point is that the speakers drew conclusions that are not limited to the European context. Technological readiness, data, and trust are poised to facilitate the realization of these projects also at a global level – an effort under attempt by the World Health Organization, in cooperation with partners including the Estonian government and leading tech company Guardtime.


  • Data saves lives

As pointed out by Terje Peetso, doctor and member of the Management Board at the North Estonia Medical Centre, data, and thus knowledge, does save lives.

With the fragmentation of relevant information about people among different data sources – going so far as to supermarkets’ loyalty cards – we need to reconcile all these footprints to provide better diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, if practitioners can access anonymized information about rare cases or clinical trials from other hospitals’ databases, research can benefit from knowledge transfer to create evidence-based guidelines for curing patients.


  • Cross-border interoperability

However, to use such knowledge effectively, first it is necessary to have access to it. Hence, we have to find a way to securely exchange health data between stakeholders and countries.

Interoperability is key in expanding possibilities in this sense. And if its business value so far has been identified in exchanging information about people’s place of residence, or taxes, or criminal records, the pandemic has clearly shed a light on healthcare too.

“Ironically, the rise of a pandemic which affected everyone exposed our inability to use this data at a national or cross-border level, which could have helped limit the morbidity of the disease,” Clayton Hamilton highlighted, from the World Health Organization’s perspective.


  • Equity of access and non-discrimination

To unlock the full potential and usability of cross-border data exchange and, in this specific case, of the vaccine certificates, the outcome of such processes cannot be exclusively digital. Equity of access and non-discrimination must be ensured so that no one is left behind.

“We must strive to not transplant the socioeconomic inequalities exposed by the pandemic to the digital environment, mindful that not everyone has access to digital solutions to the same extent,” Hamilton continued. For this reason, even if we talk about digital or smart certificates, they will be available in a paper format too.


  • A global trust framework

A major issue behind health data exchange between various parties is the level of trust and cooperation on the global scene. Marten Kaevats, National Digital Advisor of the Estonian Government, put it clearly – “Sometimes the technical and engineering know-how surpasses this domain. However, we need to focus on building trust, and to do so in a way to extend its utility to many other use cases.”

The European Commission made steps in this direction with the trust framework for the interoperability of health certificates. In a similar fashion, the World Health Organization has called for public comments on its Smart Vaccination Certificate development guidelines, and for the creation of a global trust framework. As a first step, the plan is to gather the information about all hospitals and medical centres in the world carrying out COVID19 vaccinations. But we should aim higher.


  • Sustainability of solutions beyond the crisis

Ain Aaviksoo, Chief Medical Officer at Guardtime, finds the summary to how we shall look at the development of digital vaccine certificates. The effort we are currently putting into making this solution come to life at the national, European, and global levels, is enormous. But we cannot let the outcome become a mere nice-to-have with little to no actual utility to verifying entities and epidemiologists – as in the case of many contact tracing apps.

“The Digital Green Certificates in Europe are intended as a temporary measure, as temporary the pandemic will be, sooner or later. But we should capitalize on the work that is being currently done on data quality, interoperability, standards, trust. In this way we will have treasured at least one teaching from the current crisis, and enabled the reuse of the solutions developed right now for future utility and the public good,” he said.


Re-watch the discussions on the digital vaccine certificate!