Post-COVID-19 Recovery: A Borderless Standard for a Borderless Pandemic

Co-authored by John W.H. Denton, AO - Secretary General of International Chamber of Commerce and Dorjee Sun, Co-Founder of AOKpass and CEO of Perlin

At more than eight months since global travel ground to an unprecedented halt in a year that will live in infamy, the prevailing discourse around the effectiveness of continued travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine measures during the COVID-19 pandemic remains deeply polarized. Across national borders, the development of both policy and practice remains largely asynchronous, disjointed and in many cases contradictory. Despite the urgent need, a uniform approach to safely reopening borders remains elusive and deeply problematic.

However, there is growing cause for hope as a picture is emerging of rapid innovation and meaningful collaboration in the private sector. While governments continue to grapple with how best to serve the complex and competing needs of their populations, business-led initiatives, such as those led by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), are laying the foundations for practical post-pandemic recovery.

At the heart of these efforts is the development of an interoperable international standard that can readily incorporate the needs of differing regulatory requirements imposed across jurisdictions, while adapting quickly to changes as they arise.

This is acutely important for international travel, where indiscriminate restrictions and onerous quarantine measures continue to constrain the cross-border mobility that is vital to business continuity and an economic rebound. Currently, a round trip flight from New York City to London can require as much as 28 days in quarantine – effectively deterring all but the most determined from boarding.

International Travel as the Key Battleground

Airports, airlines and heads of the world’s leading tourism and aviation bodies are increasingly united in calling for a better way to effectively mitigate the risk posed by COVID-19 while also enabling people to move more freely with confidence.

Since July this year, efforts led by ICC in both maritime and air travel have resulted in the world’s first working and scalable pilots to support a safer and controlled resumption of cross-border travel.

Deployed in the absence of clear regulatory direction, these have contributed to a growing body of data supporting the effectiveness of pre-departure testing in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Early experiments conducted by ICC partners such as ADP, an international airports operator active at 125 airports in 50 countries, showed that such testing could be applied to reduce the incidence of imported infection by over five times. Working pilots already being developed by ICC in regions as diverse as South Asia, the EU and United States, will provide more vital supporting data that will ultimately inform regulatory responses.

In line with this approach, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been unequivocal in its support of pre-departure testing, with its Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, stating that: “The key to restoring freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure. This will give governments confidence to reopen their borders… And that will put millions of people back to work.”

Working to achieve consensus on issues such as pre-departure testing has resulted in a network of global partners that now includes 175 airports, a fast-growing alliance of airlines and highly influential global representative organizations, including ICC, UN World Tourism Organisation, World Travel & Tourism Council, World Road Transport Organisation and others.

(Re)Building Trust & Traveller Confidence

Enabling a truly international and mutually recognized pre-departure testing framework requires a trusted mechanism for the verification and authentication of results. The key challenge is the extent to which authorities and travel operators in one jurisdiction can trust test results obtained in others, particularly given the widely varying levels of governance and health service infrastructure availability between countries.

As early as March this year, ICC began to meet this challenge with the creation of a blockchain-enabled, privacy-preserving digital platform and mobile application that could enable the verification of COVID-19 testing results. Conceived as a digital health passport fit for the 21st century, the open international standard prioritizes data privacy, security and universal access with the goal of re-establishing the institutional trust and traveler confidence vital to resuming cross-border travel. In simple terms, the platform allows third parties to readily verify that users have obtained valid test results from an accredited health provider.

Through close collaboration with leading organizations and private sector partners, the international standard has been further developed to enable the mutual recognition of testing results by tapping into the extensive established networks of major international health service providers. These include International SOS (the world’s leading health and security risk services company) and SGS (the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification firm), which already provide an extensive global network of accredited clinics, testing facilities and multilingual support teams. The International SOS network alone currently comprises around 80,000 accredited and regularly audited clinics worldwide. Built over decades, these trusted networks can engender the very high degree of confidence and accountability that must underpin a new international standard.

The Importance of Interoperability & Adaptability

As expected, many disparate localized systems for health status verification are now being attempted in parallel. The proliferation of approaches risks creating “digital islands” where siloed solutions cannot readily interact, which would drastically increase the complexity and reduce the efficiency of all cross-border travel. Interoperability is of crucial importance, particularly for the realization of beneficial network effects.

The technical infrastructure that implements ICC’s open international standard is designed to adapt to local regulations, medical science and industry best practice as they emerge. Thus, while regulations or requirements will almost certainly continue to vary widely between countries, any system based on this standard can readily incorporate and adapt to localized differences.

For developing countries where mobile penetration rates may be lower, the digital platform also allows for the issuance of tamper-proof QR code adhesives that can be attached to other recognized ID documentation, such as passports. This helps to ensure travelers who do not possess smartphones are still able to access and benefit from the system. As a Category A contributor to the ISO 215 global information standard for health data, ICC continues to align closely with area experts from across disciplines to ensure the integrity and utility of an open standard across all industries and jurisdictions.

Working Pilots on the Ground

Key to the success of this global collaborative effort will be the invaluable data being collected from trials planned and underway that will help inform the path to recovery across sectors beyond travel for years to come. Any program for return to work, education and in-person social interaction will need to follow a similar trajectory of innovation.

As early pilots led by ICC in countries such as Pakistan have shown, even the most advanced technology will face unforeseen challenges on the ground. In the Karachi testing ground where an ongoing pilot has been deployed in partnership with Etihad Airways, the lack of reliable internet connectivity was a significant challenge for traveller adoption until workarounds could be found. In this case, high-visibility signage and staff were deployed to offer free internet tethering for mobile users obtaining their testing at on-site clinics. Priority queues at airline check-in counters for these travelers also help incentivize adoption.

An important benefit of creating an interoperable and adaptive open standard is that any solutions that apply it will readily be able to incorporate other forms of health verification in future – including for COVID-19 vaccines once developed and for other infectious diseases. As a prime example, the ICC standard has already been used to verify flu vaccinations obtained by individuals in the Philippines, Switzerland and Singapore – most notably for WHO staff in Geneva.

Ultimately, the practical learnings from pilot deployments will help to refine the execution of what is an innovative approach to managing with greater agility and certainty the health risks posed by COVID-19 in the travel process.

International travel remains a key component of the global economy and a driver of economic activity that supports millions of livelihoods globally, even as many face-to-face interactions and businesses have shifted online to cope with the current crisis.

With the commitment of the broad coalition of partners already formed and the much-needed support of government leaders, an open and secure 21st century solution could soon help to more safely and quickly get the world moving once again.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.