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Asian startups jump into developing vaccine passports

While governments dither, companies in Indonesia and Japan get to work

ANA trials a digital health passport at Haneda international airport in Tokyo in March. Asian startups are developing digital health IDs, including vaccine passports. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO/JAKARTA -- Now that COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out around the world and testing is becoming customary for international travel, Asian startups are looking to leverage their tech prowess to develop digital health IDs, including vaccine passports.

While the passports are still being debated by governments, some companies are taking the lead in advance of slow-footed politicians.

My Health Diary, an Indonesian startup, is one such example.

The company started out with a teledoctor app, with which users can talk to health professionals, 24/7. But after COVID-19 struck Indonesia, the app started adding pandemic-related features, including news and webinars, as well as the ability to reserve PCR tests and vaccinations.

Now, My Health Diary is piloting a program that monitors people who have been vaccinated with a view to developing a national health passport. The idea is to arm users with wearable tech like a smartwatch to monitor health and assess their condition -- including vaccination history -- which can then be used to issue a bar code that indicates whether the user is fit for travel.

"The government will sooner or later need to adopt a national health passport," said founder Herman Huang. "I believe there is a sense for the government to adopt homegrown apps that can be synchronized and recognized by wider regional governments and institutions," he said.

The Indonesian government currently has two systems that could be turned into a vaccine passport. One is e-HAC, a health alert card that all travelers need to fill out, whether entering Indonesia or flying domestic. The other is a digital vaccination certificate that the government issues and sends to the vaccinated.

Huang believes a health passport developed by a startup can be more agile compared to government-led schemes and can add new features more quickly, like "integration to the wider health care ecosystem."

But while introduction of a vaccine passport will go a long way to helping revive international travel and tourism, "there are several obstacles," said Patrick Osewe, chief of Asian Development Bank's health sector group.

"There are issues around equity. If someone is unable to get the vaccine for medical reasons, for example, would they then be barred entry into a country?" he said. "And what about those people who live in countries that have not yet gained access to a vaccine? They would also be disadvantaged."

A vaccine passport is "being discussed," Budi Gunadi Sadikin, Indonesia's health minister, said in a parliamentary hearing in early April. But he warned that a vaccine passport would "only make sense" if a country accepting the passport has sufficiently inoculated to reduce the transmission rate. A vaccination "does not mean that we are 100% immune," he said. "The point is that you can still get [COVID-19] and you can still transmit it. If not all [countries] are vaccinated or [reach] herd immunity, there can still be high transmission."

Standardization is another issue. Today, various health credentials -- from the Commons Project Foundation's CommonPass, the International Air Transport Association's IATA Travel Pass to European Union's Digital Green Certificate -- are being discussed, developed and piloted around the world to facilitate cross-border travel by showing records of testings and vaccinations at airline check-in counters and borders.

But it is up to authorities which platform to introduce, and the absence of secure and standardized infrastructure is expected to cause problems with regards to fraud. And a vaccine certificate in one country might not be valid in another.

"Ensuring some measure of consistency and international standards across all countries in the way the vaccine passports are applied or how data is stored and protected would go a long way," said ADB's Osewe. "But at present, this remains a major hurdle."

A Singapore company is already working to solve this problem. Affinidi, a digital-ID startup founded by Temasek Holdings, provides digital verification technology that can read credentials based on multiple international protocols.

The company, which has numerous health passport standard providers onboard, including the government-developed HealthCerts, announced in mid-April that travelers arriving at Changi Airport with CommonPass app can now digitally verify their health status with Singapore Immigration. The country said it will accept visitors from May who show the IATA Travel Pass to share their pre-departure test results.

Japan's GVE, a digital payment platform developer, is set to help build an international standard for vaccine passports. The Tokyo-based startup just started working with Ecma International, a global standards body for information and communication technology whose members include IBM, Facebook and Google, to seek ways to deliver a health certificate for international travel.

"Ensuring interoperability [among platforms] and authenticity is a key for vaccine passports," said Koji Fusa, CEO of GVE, which was founded in 2017. "Since GVE has already resolved these issues through our database servers for central bank's digital currency, we are unveiling our knowledge to shape international standards so that any platform for vaccine passport would work."

GVE has developed a highly secure technology that guarantees real-time access to two separate databases while keeping them safe from hackers. Together with the government of a developing country, the startup plans to roll out a digital payment business in the country.

The U.K.'s Royal Society unveiled in February 12 criteria for the development and use of such passports upon travel, including a need to meet benchmarks for COVID-19 immunity and accommodate differences between vaccine efficacy. The proposal came when similar discussions were also launched at the World Health Organization together with tech-savvy Estonia, to come up with ideas for a globally recognized electronic vaccine certificate.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, remains reluctant to join discussions for such certificates, as the country is now still focused on giving shots.

Fusa believes the standardization process at Ecma will take until around the end of the year. After piloting its database servers, "The use of such a standardized system at two countries will be then expanded to multilateral levels," Fusa said, so that he hopes the system, backed by GVE's technology, will eventually be deployed as a de facto standard.

COVID-19 is likely to shape travel in the future. "Just like stricter security checks have been introduced after 9/11 in 2001, it will be normal in the long run to keep track of your vaccine shots for international travel," despite challenges we see today, said Susumu Tsubaki, CEO of Asia Africa Investment and Consulting Japan, an investment company.

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