Vaccine passport imminent as health authorities meet with St. John's tech startup

·3 min read
Newfoundland and Labrador will soon join other provinces in implementing a vaccine passport system, requiring proof of vaccination to access certain events and services. (Paul Jones/CBC - image credit)
Newfoundland and Labrador will soon join other provinces in implementing a vaccine passport system, requiring proof of vaccination to access certain events and services. (Paul Jones/CBC - image credit)
Paul Jones/CBC
Paul Jones/CBC

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie will be meeting with a group of tech entrepreneurs from Memorial University on Tuesday to review an application they designed that could be part of the province's vaccine passport system.

Noah Côté and Austin Aiken, co-founders of Mdium, a company that specializes in secure data transfer, have developed a product during a work term at the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship to facilitate the transfer of photos between devices.

That product eventually became the basis for VaccPass, an app and website that provides users with a numerical or QR code once they upload proof of vaccination.

Businesses and events can then scan a code on a smartphone or a printout to access patrons' vaccination statuses before granting them access.

The system is similar to one launched in Quebec on Sept. 1 and rolling out in Saskatchewan later this month.

Blaine Edwards, entrepreneur-in-residence at health-care consulting company Bounce Health Innovation, met with Mdium earlier this year to review the possible use of their technology in that sector.

"Just through the serendipity of innovation, it was announced that the province was going to roll out a vaccine passport," Edwards said.

"After a few hours of reviewing the new technology and the standards, we decided that this was an absolutely possible application that could be modified for that purpose."

A homegrown solution?

Côté says the company plans to modify VaccPass to require users to upload government-issued ID, along with a photo, to verify the integrity of the person creating the account. The QR code will be issued once the identity has been verified.

This feature will distinguish VaccPass from Quebec's system in that it will allow ID integration, meaning users will not have to present photo ID when scanning their code.

"We want to build an all-in-one solution to this that would cover both aspects of that," Côté said.

Edwards said Tuesday's meeting with Minister Haggie will be an opportunity to "show off the technology." A media release from the provincial government Monday afternoon said Sarah Stoodley, minister of digital government and Service N.L., would be at a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday afternoon to provide an update on the provincial government's vaccine-passport plans.

Bruce Tilley/CBC
Bruce Tilley/CBC

"I think the story is that the province's tech sector is very advanced and is able to stand up a piece of technology like this that is equal to or better than other provinces," he said.

Grounds for concern

The introduction of vaccine passport mandates in provinces including British Columbia and Quebec have prompted concerns over rights to privacy and freedom of movement.

Protests to that effect have been held across the country.

Carey Majid, a lawyer and executive director of the Human Rights Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador, says her office has been getting plenty of calls from concerned citizens.

"This is a very complex, personal, emotional issue and we do understand those emotions," she said.

While Majid declined to comment on the implications of N.L.'s yet-to-be-determined vaccine passport system, she did say that mandating vaccine passports is "a big measure," and one that must weigh human rights principles.

One of those principles stipulates that service providers and employers cannot discriminate on the basis of certain prohibited grounds, such as medical status, race, sexual orientation and religion.

Submitted by Carey Majid
Submitted by Carey Majid

But the experiences of other human rights commissions, particularly Ontario's, show challenges rooted in medical and religious reasons aren't holding much water.

"Basically what [those guidelines] said … is that there are very few medical reasons why you cannot be vaccinated," she said.

Reviews by other commissions also show "there's very few religions that have any sort of theological opposition to vaccines," Majid said.

While Majid said N.L.'s human rights commission is "looking to go in [the] same direction" as Ontario's in terms of prohibited grounds challenges, guidelines will reflect a balance between the rights of individuals and those of the wider community.

"So that's where the struggle is," she said.

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