The first successful transatlantic trial of a new digital health “passport” was executed this week on a flight from London to New Jersey, enabling travelers to provide certified COVID-19 test information to border officials upon arrival.
The digital health pass, called CommonPass, was developed by Swiss-based nonprofit the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum; it is being presented to 37 governments (and counting) as a way to help facilitate the reopening of borders and travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Volunteer travelers who landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on October 21 used the CommonPass on their mobile phones to share their COVID-19 test status with airline staff and observers. Their arrival on United Airlines flight 15 from London’s Heathrow Airport marked the first successful transatlantic trial of the CommonPass. Officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were on site to observe the CommonPass demonstration at Newark.
“The COVID pandemic has brought down travel and tourism across the board,” stated Troy Miller, CBP’s director of field operations in New York. “CBP is happy to observe the efforts and be a part of the solution to build confidence in air travel and are encouraged by this CommonPass pilot.”
The Heathrow-Newark trial followed a successful trial of CommonPass on a Cathay Pacific Airways flight from Hong Kong to Singapore on October 6. Additional airlines and routes in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East are expected to participate in “quick succession,” according to the Commons Project.
So, how does it work? Each participating country must decide on two things—first, which COVID-19 tests and lab results are deemed credible. For instance, in the United States, the current standard required by states such as Hawaii has become a PCR test (also known as the nasal swab test) administered by a lab certified by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA).
Secondly, each government must determine what its entry requirements are. Once those are established, the CommonPass creates a digital network with certified labs so travelers’ results can be uploaded to the platform. And when travelers enter their destination, they are given the entry requirements they need to fulfill.
After travelers take a COVID-19 test at a certified lab and upload the results to their mobile phone, they can then complete any additional health questionnaires required by the destination country. CommonPass confirms compliance and generates a QR code that can be scanned by airline staff and border officials either from a mobile device or one that has been printed out.
Trials such as the current one that is underway with CommonPass “are critical to demonstrate the potential for testing as an alternative to blanket quarantine measures or travel restrictions,” stated Steve Morrissey, United Airlines’ vice president, regulatory and policy.
The current trials are intended to mimic the full start-to-finish experience of taking a test for COVID-19 prior to departure, uploading the result to a mobile device via the CommonPass app, and providing the results to airport staff and officials at departure and arrival airports.
“The U.S. and global economies simply cannot afford to wait for a widely distributed COVID vaccine for international travel to resume, so innovative technologies and the embrace of best health practices need to provide the way forward. A rapid and secure means of verifying travelers’ COVID status is an important component of that, so we’re excited about the advancement of CommonPass,” stated Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes travel and tourism to the United States.
Cathay Pacific Airways’ initial trial incorporated rapid testing technology provided by Prenetics. For United Airlines volunteers using the CommonPass tech, tests are provided at Heathrow by Prenetics as well and administered by medical services firm Collinson in the airport’s dedicated COVID-19 testing facility areas.
There is currently no mandatory quarantine for travel from the United Kingdom to the United States, but there is one for travel in the opposite direction. The United Kingdom has a 14-day quarantine in place for anyone who arrives from a country or territory not on a list of exempted nations, including travelers coming from the United States.
Those participating in the trial will not be allowed to bypass any current government restrictions. But the hope is that the CommonPass will ultimately help reduce or eliminate such quarantine requirements.
“Without the ability to trust COVID-19 tests—and eventually vaccine records—across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” stated Dr. Bradley Perkins, former chief strategy and innovation officer at the CDC.
Providing governments and travelers with a platform on which they can share health information in a verifiable and privacy-protected format is the key to opening borders, added Perkins, who is now chief medical officer at the Commons Project.
According to the Commons Project, it protects users’ personal data in compliance with privacy regulations.