JERUSALEM — Israel and Bahrain on Thursday reached what Israel calls the world's first bilateral agreement for mutual recognition of COVID-19 vaccine passports for quarantine-free travel between two countries, an Israeli diplomat who helped forge the deal tells NPR.
"This is the most effective way to enable movement of people between countries," says Ilan Fluss, head of the Israeli foreign ministry's economic division. "A lot of countries are looking at testing, but it is not enough."
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated populations per capita, is a leading proponent of vaccine passports — documents or digital forms confirming that a person is vaccinated against COVID-19 — arguing they are key to reopening economies for tourism and business travel. In some countries, there is opposition to the concept, seen as a violation of privacy and civil liberties.
In Israel and Bahrain, the vaccine passports will be entirely digital: a QR code on one's phone, recognized at both countries' passport control, Fluss says. The passports will only contain COVID-19 vaccination information. Personal health records will not be included.
Israel will recognize Bahraini vaccine passports not only for entry, but also to gain access to an Israeli domestic vaccine pass, called the Green Pass, which allows those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 or recovered from the virus to access restaurants, gyms, theaters and other venues.
Israel also grants these passes to citizens who do not wish to be vaccinated, but only for 48 hours and only after they test negative for the virus.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement that Israel would reach similar agreements with other countries in the coming days. Israel is in talks with the U.S., U.K. and others for mutual vaccine document recognition. The U.S. poses challenges for Israel because its vaccination certificates are often handwritten and not centrally stored digitally.
The pact with Bahrain, a country that established diplomatic ties with Israel last year, paves the way for new Gulf Arab travel to Israel after Israel gradually reopens to foreign visitors in late May, starting with tour groups.
Israel currently recognizes the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines, but not other vaccines available in Bahrain, and is seeking a solution to allow all Bahrainis to enter once the country reopens.
Several countries have already unilaterally recognized Israeli vaccine certificates in a bid to attract Israeli tourists without quarantine requirements, including Greece and Cyprus. Those countries have also announced efforts to forge bilateral travel agreements, as the European Union is working to unveil vaccine passports for EU-wide travel in mid-June.