BY GRADY MCGREGOR

March 19, 2021 1:18 AM EDT

  • SOURCE: FORTUNE MAGAZINE

On Wednesday, the European Union announced plans to launch vaccine passports as early as this summer, but COVID-19 vaccine passports are already becoming a reality in Asia.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that China created digital vaccine passports, called “international travel health certificates,” for its 1.4 billion people. The certificates are run through WeChat, the widely used Chinese social messaging app owned by Tencent, and store and verify vaccine records.

Wang said that for now the passports will be used for internal purposes and help clear some red tape for Chinese citizens embarking on domestic trips. But he said Beijing plans to use the passports to eventually open up travel between China and other countries and is ready to negotiate with foreign nations on mutual recognition of vaccines. At least one country, Israel, has started talks with China about taking up the offer.

In Singapore, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Singapore Airlines launched a Travel Pass pilot scheme this week, testing a digital COVID-19 passport system that could quickly expand globally. Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong–based airliner, also said this week it’s experimenting with a different digital COVID-19 health certificate called CommonPass on flights between Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

Despite the decentralized initial approach and the practical challenges of implementing a universally recognized system, the idea of vaccine passports is likely to become reality in the near term, says Gianfranco Casati, Accenture’s chief executive officer in growth markets.

Casatiis advising governments and businesses across Asia on how to use vaccine passports and other digital health solutions to overcome challenges related to the pandemic. He spoke to Fortune about why Asia is poised to lead on vaccine passports, the importance of digitizing them, and when travel can return to normal. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gianfranco Casati: When you think about international travel, countries have come to an agreement that the passports issued by the local authorities have universal validity. The precedent is the paper passport.

I have to believe that over a period of time, which might be a year or more, there will be a convergence toward something that is universally accepted.

It’s more the how rather than if—and Asia is probably going to be faster. Europe will be debating about many principles that will hold them back a little bit.

It will start on a more bilateral basis because there is an element of trust among countries that comes into play. But it could accelerate. For example, IATA is working on a digital travel pass that it started working on before the pandemic kicked in. If there is a convergence toward the platform, then it may become a multilateral quite soon.

What will it look like?

I am thinking that it is inevitable that it is going to become digital. Instead of having this deck of documents that you distribute along the way, with the risk of losing them with the risk of being counterfeited, it’s very obvious that these passports evolve into something digital.

The World Health Organization has criticized vaccine passports for potentially exacerbating social inequalities through allowing only a privileged, vaccinated few to travel. Should that be a barrier in creating vaccine passports?

We need to be honest and say the problem is not the digital certificate. The problem is how fast countries vaccinate. We shouldn’t confuse cause and effect. Not adopting the simple passport or digital certificates because certain countries are lagging behind will hold everybody back.

How much pressure are governments under to resume travel?

It is intense. One factor is the contribution [of travel] to GDP. One is the psychological, emotional element that is related to an ability to move. And the third one is an element of competitiveness among countries; when somebody opens up, the others will have to react.

The U.S. is doing rather well in vaccinations, and we should just assume that three months from now it will be almost double the current level. The moment certain countries like the U.S. open up for inbound and outbound travels, there is an element of competitiveness that other countries will have to consider.

When will travel go back to normal?

My sense is that in six months, around September or October, we’ll start seeing some more scientific evidence of [vaccines reducing infections globally]. Therefore, we will see some more openings between countries. It will not be multilateral reopening by then but more bilateral agreements or clusters of countries. 2022 will be maybe a year where we get closer to the new normal.

The factor that I think is grossly underestimated when it comes to travel is that CFOs and CEOs of large corporations have now figured out that they can define a different level of essential business travels. So, while travel may be safe from a health standpoint, I think corporations will have set a different bar for business travel.

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