Experts take dim view of Covid-19 ‘vaccine passport’ for Malaysians

A nurse loads a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Penang General Hospital in George Town March 2, 2021. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
A nurse loads a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Penang General Hospital in George Town March 2, 2021. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

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KUALA LUMPUR, March 3 — As countries like Israel, Australia and the UK roll out Covid-19 vaccination passports in an attempt to restore normalcy, health experts here are unconvinced if this should be pursued by Malaysia yet.

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive officer Azrul Mohd Khalib said Malaysia was in more urgent need of a clear exit strategy for the Covid-19 pandemic, one with measurable benchmarks.

"Policymakers need to move from responding to a crisis, to forward planning.

"Waiting until 70 to 80 per cent of the population have been vaccinated in 2022 to reopen interstate borders, for example, is not a realistic option," he said.

Yesterday, Senior Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said inter-district movement will be allowed in all states except Sabah starting March 5 but inter-state travel remains prohibited.

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah previously said it was too early to decide on whether Covid-19 vaccination will serve as the basis for an “immunity passport” before one can start moving around freely.

Dr Noor Hisham said the government will need more data and will use the four-stage vaccination plan, which may take up to nine months, before the country manages to vaccinate 70 to 80 per cent of its people.

Azrul pointed out that there is currently no scientific evidence that any of the current Covid-19 vaccine completely prevents infection or asymptomatic transmission.

The most concrete evidence so far, he said, was Israel’s data that showed vaccination heavily reduced the risk of developing severe Covid-19 symptoms especially among the elderly.

"These are good and reliable indicators which can be used to measure the effectiveness of the Covid-19 response in mitigating the epidemic, as well as the impact of the vaccination programme," he said.

While an elimination strategy was preferable, measures to mitigate the epidemic should take into account that the coronavirus will likely be in the population for some time to come.

"We cannot lurch from one lockdown to the next, or close inter-state borders indefinitely," he said.

Opposing the idea of a Covid-19 vaccination passport, Malaysia Medical Gazette managing editor Dr Khoo Yoong Khean said the concept could create a false sense of security.

Dr Khoo, a medical practitioner who trained in primary, tertiary and emergency healthcare in various clinical specialities, also expressed concern that such a “passport” could be discriminatory of lower-income groups.

"Although the suggestion at the moment is limited to travel and business, he said the idea of a vaccination passport will eventually trickle to other areas including entering buildings, events or even as a job requirement.

"This will perpetuate discrimination even further," he said.

According to privacy lawyer Foong Cheng Leong, there could be privacy concerns with such a passport, depending on what data is collected and shared by the governments.

"If it is standard information that is being shared when a person travels from country to country, that should be fine.

"However, a person's medical information is sensitive personal data and the sharing of such information should be limited," said Foong.

He suggested that for the purpose of combating Covid-19, the information shared should only be limited to matters related to Covid-19 and not a person's health information in general.

Raising similar concerns regarding protection of data, lawyer Shanker Sundaram said to properly protect data and comply with data protection laws, both data privacy and data security needed to be applied.

Shanker explained that data privacy focuses on individuals' rights, the purpose of data collection and processing, privacy preferences, and the way organisations govern personal data of data subjects.

"Meanwhile, data security is about the set of standards and different safeguards and measures that an organisation is taking in order to prevent any third party from unauthorized access to digital data i.e malicious attack, alteration, deletion and disclosures," he said.

Explaining further and citing the Immunitee Health Passport, the country's first health passport, Shanker said this is a system that takes into account data protection.

"It ensures that the authorities and other organisations have no access to any confidential information and there is no location tracking and has ensured with data privacy and data security measures.

"Hence, there is minimal risk in the data being misused," said Shanker.

On February 21, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba said the government has plans to issue Covid-19 vaccination passports as verification for individuals who have received their vaccination.

Transport Minister Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong similarly suggested that a universal certification may be issued to those who have been vaccinated to ease travel restrictions and revive the aviation sector within the South-east Asian region.

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