In an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner sought to downplay privacy worries at the heart of opposition to verification requirements.
“The whole discussion around vaccine passports has gotten swept up in a lot of concerns around whether or not it’s going to be used to limit people’s access to things that they would otherwise do,” said Gottlieb, a board member of Pfizer, which makes one of the three Covid vaccines cleared for emergency use in the U.S. Vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are the other two. “The use case for this information is likely to be enabling access to things that are otherwise going to be restricted.”
Gottlieb pointed to visitations at nursing homes or hospitals in the fall, when he said he expects to see an uptick in coronavirus cases again. This past winter “nursing homes banned visitors. Hospitals banned visitors,” he said. “You could see a situation where those institutions might allow people to visit if they can demonstrate they’ve been vaccinated.”
Information on administered Covid vaccines is currently being entered into the same system used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track pediatric vaccinations, Gottlieb explained. “The problem with the system is it was never designed really to be accessible to consumers, so consumers really have no way right now to get the information to prove they’ve been vaccinated.”
The paper cards from the CDC people currently receive when getting their Covid shots are unlikely to cut it, either, he said. “Those are available on eBay right now … so people aren’t going to accept the cards as proof of vaccination.”
That’s why digital documentation of Covid vaccine status should be available to Americans, he argued. “How they choose to use it is up to them,” said the former FDA chief from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration.
Efforts to develop digital Covid vaccine records are underway, including a high-profile group backed by Microsoft and the Mayo Clinic known as the Vaccination Credential Initiative. The coalition said earlier this month it hopes to make the technology it develops available in May.
IBM is working with New York State on a digital health pass that uses blockchain technology to verify a person’s test or vaccine credentials. Walmart, which is carrying out shots in its stores, recently backed calls for vaccine certificates.
The debate around so-called vaccine passports has grown contentious, as some critics raise civil liberty concerns. In Florida, for example, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order earlier this month that prevents businesses from requiring a person to offer show they’ve received a Covid vaccine as a prerequisite for service.
Last week, the Biden administration ruled out vaccine passports at the federal level. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last Tuesday, “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”
Gottlieb said, “in certain limited circumstances,” he anticipates people needing to demonstrate they have been immunized against Covid. “So, I think people need to think about this differently,” he added. “Right now, as consumers, we don’t own this information, and we should.”
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion Inc. and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings? and Royal Caribbean‘s “Healthy Sail Panel.” The Associated Press contributed to this report.