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‘Narrow opportunity’ to use biometrics for fair COVID global vaccination programming

‘Narrow opportunity’ to use biometrics for fair COVID global vaccination programming

“An effective vaccination program will falter if we don’t invest in the information infrastructure for vaccine delivery in developed and low and middle-income countries alike. There is little evidence that we are ready for this.”

So finds a recently updated and reviewed academic paper entitled “COVID-19 vaccine delivery: an opportunity to set up systems for the future” which looks at how health infrastructure backed by biometrics could help ensure a fair, effective and efficient COVID vaccine roll out across a world where around a billion people have no legal ID and where vaccination programs are geared up for children, while adults are the focus of inoculations during the pandemic.

The paper warns that the gaps in data quality, reporting and patient identification in existing vaccine programs exist again in Covid-19 vaccine schemes. These issues “risk wasting major investments like COVAX funding for COVID-19 vaccines in low and middle-income countries”.

Plus the disruption cause by the pandemic has affected and even halted traditional vaccination schedules.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and other organizations have identified biometric digital identity as a “potential lever to bridge the identity gap and ensure accurate data,” according to the paper by Rebecca Weintraub from Ariadne Labs, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital Boston, Boston along with co-authors around the world including two from Simprints.

Gavi is partnering with the Ghana Health Service and Arm to begin the world’s first contactless biometric-based national vaccination program in October, initially for COVID vaccinations, with technology from Simprints.

The paper finds that using biometrics systems to underpin the administering of vaccines “can be privacy preserving, interoperable, portable, secure, and capable of serving both adult and children’s needs. In countries without foundational ID systems, biometrics are more reliable than identifiers like names and dates of birth, and less susceptible to loss or damage than paper vaccine cards”.

“Biometrics also have the advantage of being agnostic to use case, meaning they can connect different systems during or even after rollout,” write the authors, “For example, governments will have different priorities behind ID for vaccine supply chain management, vaccine delivery, and international certification for travel. It will be essential to head off the creation of multiple, non-interoperable systems behind each of these priorities.”

The academics do not believe it necessary to create foundational ID systems where they are lacking in order to roll out with vaccination: “One can readily create registries that are regional yet not tied to citizenship, and these can continue in parallel or connect to national programs as they develop”.

Biometrics systems could be established with little lead time and provide lasting infrastructure for routine immunizations afterwards, securely accessed via patient verification. To achieve this at scale, the paper urges global stakeholders to collaborate on technical and legal infrastructure and interoperable biometrically-supported digital health technologies.

“Biometrics must also work in concert with non-biometric identity methods where they are already successful, even as traditional methods can be leap-frogged in areas where the low cost, scalability and usability advantages of all digital identity are most relevant,” note the authors. The advantages should go far beyond tackling the COVID pandemic. “If done transparently, this infrastructure can enhance trust in vaccines, something critical to clinical trial enrolment and widespread public adoption.”

Intervals between injections plus the possibilities of boosters and new jabs in the future will require long-term patient record-keeping worldwide, and a long-term solution. But for now, the authors warn that:

“We have a narrow opportunity to set the stage for such fair and sustainable infrastructure across the globe. If done well, we can ensure the promise of the COVID-19 vaccine portfolio leads to future widespread vaccination – and protection – for global populations.”

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