SINGAPORE: Singapore firms have developed digital health passports that can verify travellers’ COVID-19 test results, as the country gradually reopens its borders with safe management measures in place.
Tech firm Affinidi said it is working with government agencies and private sector partners on trials for inbound travellers, while two other companies said they were involved in pilots for the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble, which was supposed to begin on Nov 22 but has since been postponed.
DIGITAL HEALTH PASSPORTS
Digital health passports allow clinics and hospitals to share healthcare data across borders in a secure manner, using technology like blockchain.
After prospective travellers take their COVID-19 test at a healthcare provider working with these apps, developers issue a QR code with the test result, which travellers show to immigration authorities.
When scanned, officers can see details such as whether the laboratory is on the destination country’s whitelist, what type of test was taken, and whether it was done within the required time frame.
“So we actually work directly with the clinics, hospitals and laboratories, where they send data to us securely either through an API or through our cloud-based solution, and we take that data, make it into a verifiable document, and put it into the hands of the individual in their digital health passport,” said Mr Quah Zheng Wei, co-founder and CEO of Accredify.
This is to ensure that test results have not been tampered with while ensuring that sensitive personal health records are shared only with those the user chooses to share them with.
This compares to options like opening up centralised databases of medical records to countries around the world, which brings up issues of data privacy and could potentially make healthcare providers targets for cyberattacks.
ENSURING RELEVANCE WITH WIDE NETWORKS
Accredify has 80 labs and clinics in Singapore and Hong Kong on board, through partnerships with private healthcare providers such as Parkway Pantai and Raffles Medical Group.
Next year, it aims to expand its network to about 440 clinics in Singapore that have been authorised to offer COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction tests, and it is expecting more to come on board as testing gets ramped up.
Another digital health passport, ICC AOKpass, has access to a global network of about 73,000 medical providers that are regularly audited by its partner International SOS.
“It provides a go-to network, especially when we're dealing with business clients, because many of them are already serviced by this network. So the referral to the high quality clinic … that already exists in many ways through a network like that,” says Dr Chester Drum, co-founder of ICC AOKpass.
“That network is present in almost every country. And that's the advantage – if you're in a sparsely populated country in Africa, or if you're in the middle of London, there's access no matter where you go.”
PLUGGING THE INTEROPERABILITY GAP
With at least 10 digital health passports being developed by airlines, multinational organisations and private entities, a key problem will be interoperability – what happens when a traveller turns up at an immigration counter with an app the officer has never seen before?
“There are many providers today that are helping you to issue these test results in a way that is verifiable. The problem then is that there are many different standards, which the immigration officer or the (airline) check-in counter will need to verify against,” said Mr Nicholas Foo, who does business development at Affinidi.
Drawing a comparison with credit card payment systems, Mr Foo said it is unlikely that a single type of digital health passport will dominate the scene. Instead, what is needed is "a single terminal (that) can read everything".
To help do so, Affinidi has built a web application it calls the Universal Verifier.
“We will work with all these different standard providers to be able to read the QR codes and display the result in the same way to the immigration officer. This helps to save a lot of time, and the immigration officer doesn't have to learn different types of standards,” said Mr Foo.
Affinidi said more details about trials in Singapore will be revealed soon. It has also received interest from other countries and is engaging them to see how it can scale up the solution.
“The vision is that we will trial this in the region first, but hopefully expand this to become a more global solution in the near term,” said Mr Foo.
Affinidi currently has eight digital health passport providers on board, including Accredify and AOKpass. Others include Knowledge Catalyst, NextID, Collinson, and 3DCerts.
According to the solution providers, these platforms have potential beyond international travel.
“For example, when we spoke to counterparts in Malaysia, in Indonesia, there are requirements for a negative COVID-19 test to be proven for you to cross between states,” said Mr Foo.
“Negative COVID-19 test results are also required for the purposes of employment … these are very real-life applications.”
Such systems may also be useful for gaining entrance into events.
Providers said these solutions can also be easily adapted if proof of COVID-19 vaccinations becomes a requirement in future.
“This is ultimately a game of confidence, and the more confidence you have, the more willing you are to open up borders. (Having) the confidence that the people (who) are travelling to your country have these digital certs will allow us to open the borders more quickly,” said Mr Foo.