4 things to know about the CommonPass digital health app

Jul 27, 2021

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Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Love the idea or hate it, but the subject of digital health — specifically vaccine passports — is a big topic.

The only way to confirm vaccine status in the United States is a card from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But travelers should be prepared to use vaccine passports to prove vaccination status, making it easier to enter certain countries and even states or be exempt from strict testing and quarantine requirements.

Hawaii recently announced that CommonPass, a digital health app, would be available to pre-clear travelers through the state’s Safe Travels Program. Travelers can use the app to upload their COVID-19 vaccine credentials or negative test results. Fully vaccinated people from the mainland U.S. no longer need to pre-test or quarantine on arrival to Hawaii.

To find out more about how the CommonPass app works, TPG spoke with Paul Meyer, chief executive officer of The Commons Project, through video chat.

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How does the CommonPass app work for flying to Hawaii?

Paul Meyer: We helped co-develop a new standard called Smart Health Cards. The European Union has created its digital COVID-19 certificates. The NHS has got theirs. The U.S. government is affirmatively not creating a national credential other than the CDC paper cards.

So in that void, we helped create a standard called Smart Health Cards, which is effectively a way of digitally wrapping health information, vaccination records, or test results in a secure digital package.

Everyone from Rwanda to North Macedonia and other countries are embracing the standard for digitizing records. Being able to do it in a digitally verifiable way is the only way of doing this scalably because right now, [places like] Hawaii, for example, say, “if you get vaccinated, you don’t have to get tested.” So what does that mean? How do you prove that? If you have a Smart Health Card, you can upload it into CommonPass and use it to check it digitally, and then you’re done. This has implications for Hawaii and Aruba, where we’re currently operating, but also for a lot of countries.

Countries and destinations all have their own health requirements. How has the Common Project decided which requirements to focus on?

Meyer: We work with those jurisdictions. If you want to fly to Hawaii, we’re implementing Hawaii’s rules. If you want to fly to Aruba, we’re employing Aruba’s rules, right? So it’s all based on where you’re going. Because ultimately, what are we doing? We’re just checking that … you have to satisfy the rules, whether it’s testing or vaccination.

There are other digital health apps out there for travelers to use. What’s different about CommonPass?

Meyer: No app is going to solve this problem. There is not going to be one app that becomes the universal [digital health] app.

We’ve realized there’s been a lot of focus on the airlines, [But] governments are actually the ones who set the rules, not airlines…We’re implementing the policy on behalf of the government. [For instance,] we’re effectively checking on behalf of the government of Hawaii that you satisfy Hawaii’s rules. It’s about checking against the government rules and then being able to tell the airline and the government, “this person’s good to go.”

There’s been a lot in the news lately about “vaccine passports.” Is CommonPass a vaccine passport?

Meyer: Smart Health Cards are effectively vaccine certificates. We have a digital certificate of your vaccination record. It’s a digital version of your vaccination record.

There are lots of reasons why you need your vaccination records, not just getting on airplanes. And the reason that the healthcare ecosystem rallied so quickly around Smart Health Cards is that there are lots of reasons why having a trusted, verifiable way of giving people health data is important. Smart Health Cards are verifiable clinical records [of] COVID-19 vaccination, or mumps, measles and rubella vaccination. It’s a verifiable digital record of a piece of your health information and … if you want to show it to an airline to get on an airplane or a border agency, great. If you want to share it with your new doctor, it’s the same thing.

Some people have serious concerns about privacy, accessibility or the potential for hacking. How is The Commons Project addressing those concerns?

Meyer: We’re not retaining any data. We’re like looking at it to see if you satisfy the rules, and then [we] don’t retain any of that. Right.

There is no central repository of health data that is created here. All we’re doing is, effectively, just inspecting it. And a moment in time just saying, “does this piece of health information you’re presenting satisfy the rule of the place you want to go?” We’re just passing on the yes or no [answer]. There’s no retention of any of the health data in any of the things that we’re doing.

Featured image courtesy of The Commons Project Foundation

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