Inforial (The Jakarta Post)
Jakarta ● Fri, April 1, 2022
At the first meeting of the Group of 20 (G20) Health Working Group (HWG 1), which was held in a hybrid format from March 28 to 29 in Yogyakarta, the Health Ministry led discussions on setting a global standard for health protocols to promote safer and more convenient international travel. Indonesia not only called for the standardization of digital vaccine certificates but also technology sharing to develop a digital app that can be recognized across multiple countries for international travel.
HWG 1 chair Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, who is the director general for disease prevention and control at the Health Ministry, said that G20 members had responded positively to the Indonesian initiative, unanimously agreeing to align their health protocols under a global standard. They also agreed to establish digital COVID-19 vaccine certification that would be recognized by all participating countries.
“We need to standardize global health protocols to ensure safer international travel and to support economic and welfare recovery for good,” said Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin at the opening ceremony of HWG 1.
The first step in developing a mutually recognized digital COVID-19 vaccine certificate was to set up a universal, online verification portal so countries could access the data of COVID-19 vaccine certificates. Specifically, the portal would read data on an individual’s date of vaccination, type of vaccine and the number of doses they have received by scanning a quick response (QR) code. Countries linked within the system will be able to verify vaccination data with each other.
The Health Ministry had previously held bilateral talks with other governments and institutions that have developed digital health applications including Saudi Arabia, ASEAN and the European Union. From the discussions, they agreed to use QR codes as they can safely store information and respond quicker.
Since Indonesia has developed a universal certificate-verification portal according to World Health Organization (WHO) standards, other countries would not need to change their existing systems or QR codes. The portal is also designed for use on all devices.
“Before the G20, we trialed [the portal] with ASEAN countries. We will be testing the system further with G20 member countries,” explained Maxi.
He added that the portal had been trialed so far in 20 member countries, with 19 countries reporting successfully integration with their existing systems. Only one country still needed to resolve a few technical issues.
Former WHO Southeast Asia director Tjandra Yoga Aditama suggested that the government conduct more trials and promote the technology at a bigger international forum for worldwide recognition and implementation.
“Its scope is still centered on G20 countries,” Tjandra, who spoke at an HWG session, told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday. “Efforts still need to be made to bring this agreement to a higher level by means of a binding international document.”
“The G20 is a group of 20 countries with the largest economies in the world. They’re probably also the countries with the highest mobility rates. Starting with G20 is an advantageous move if we want this technology to be adopted by other countries,” said Minister Budi.
“We want to promote the notion that standardizing global health protocols is simple and uniform around the world. We really want to take advantage of this existing technology,” he added.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is an active participant at high-level G20 meetings, said that mutual recognition of digital vaccine certificates was a safe solution for international travelers who struggled to have their vaccine certificates recognized by destination countries.
“[There are] billions of digital vaccination certificates. These certificates, however, have been issued in different formats which are not yet interoperable,” said OECD global health advisor Nick Tomlinson, who attended a press briefing for the HWG meeting on Monday.
The OECD has been working with the WHO to persuade non-G20 countries to adopt the WHO-approved digital format for COVID-19 vaccine certificates.
While Maxi felt that the first HWG meeting went smoothly, concerns remained among G20 leaders over several issues, including the security and privacy of personal vaccine data between countries.
“This system does not rely on data trade, so we can guarantee data safety as well as privacy. We built this technology using Public Key Infrastructure [PKI] that’s been supported by G20 countries,” said chief of the digital transformation office (DTO) Setiaji.
In its implementation, the universal verifier validates the vaccination data of international travelers upon entering or leaving a country. The universal verifier, with the permission of each county’s authority, will provide information from the public key infrastructure that can be verified by the interconnected portals.
The Health Ministry hopes that there will be a worldwide implementation of the universal verifier in preparation for a future outbreak or other disease mitigation.
The adoption of digital health applications and the availability of information technology (IT) infrastructure in lower- and middle-income countries also needs to be addressed. Civil groups have echoed the same concerns, calling on the G20 to ensure that the verification portal is accessible to people who struggle with accessing the internet or mobile phones.
“The HWG also needs to accommodate the conditions of people in poor and developing countries. If necessary, the G20 should also consider [investing] in developing [IT] resources in these countries,” said Agung Pramono, coordinator of the G20 forum for civil society organizations (C20).
Despite their unanimous support for the digital vaccine certificate, G20 members have decided that proof of vaccination should not be required for international travel, considering the different vaccination rates across countries. They agreed that each country should have the authority to determine its requirements for international travel, including which vaccine product, type of COVID-19 test and testing authorities it recognizes.
“Countries are allowed to implement their own health protocols, but at least the process will be uniform when they open their borders for travel. The principle of our harmonization is respecting the sovereignty of all nations. We may not intervene,” said the health minister.
The HWG aims to have the portal up and running before the G20 Summit in Bali in November.
Maxi said issues surrounding interoperability would be discussed at a follow-up meeting in April with the G20 Technical Working Group before implementing the universal verification portal for international travel across G20 countries.
By 2021, the governments of G20 countries had adopted a variety of COVID-19 measures, including health and safety guidelines, vaccine requirements and digital health information systems. According to the health minister, G20 leaders made a commitment to facilitate safe and disciplined international travel.
However, the ever-changing situation of the pandemic in each country had a significant impact on the formulation of COVID-19 rules and their implementation. The regulations in each country shift and develop according to localized conditions. The differing standards and systems for verifying COVID-19 test documents have only added to the confusion and uncertainty among international travelers, often incurring additional travel costs.
Setting a standardized global health protocol would hopefully create ease in mobility for international travelers, said Maxi, adding that this would in turn also help revive global tourism, which had been severely affected by mobility curbs and border restrictions. According to global data, there was a decrease in tourism of 73 percent in 2020 and 72 percent in 2021 compared with 2019.
Minister Budi also stated that the harmonization of global health protocol standards and equalization of digital vaccine certificates was one of the core issues within the G20 HWG.
“The discussion [on digital vaccine certificates] will be pivotal in ensuring that transportation and the global supply chain runs smoothly, while also accelerating global recovery,” he said.