Vaccine certificate design
An illustration of a possible digital vaccine certificate from the World Health Organisation
  • South Africans will have access to digital vaccine certificates within weeks, health minister Joe Phaahla said on Friday.
  • He didn't provide detail, but said the South African initiative is in line with a World Health Organisation plan for standardised certificates.
  • That would mean certificates that capture batch numbers for the Covid-19 vaccine the holder received, which can be verified by a third party.
  • It would also make the certificates capable of being revoked if a vaccine batch is later found to have been faulty.
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Within "maybe a week", South Africans will have access to a government-issued digital certificate to prove that they have been vaccinated against Covid-19, health minister Joe Phaahla said on Friday.

The travel industry previously warned that South Africans going abroad could face huge frustrations without such certificates. This week, the government announced the "Return to Play" campaign, which will encourage vaccination by giving those who have had their shots preferential access to public venues – with the prospect that unvaccinated people may be barred from some places.

The government does not intend to use the certificates to control access to government services, Phaahla said.

Little has been disclosed about the certificate system, except that it will be linked to the Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS); details of vaccine jabs will have to be captured on the EVDS in order for a certificate to be issued, and issuing of certificates will be automatic for those whose details are correct on the EVDS.

But the certificates will be in line with the World Health Organisation's initiative to standardise such documents, Phaahla said, which provides a rough idea of what they will look like, and how they will work.

Two weeks ago, the WHO issued a set of technical specifications and implementation guidelines specific to Covid-19 vaccine status certificates. That document is intended to help member states, such as South Africa, adopt interoperable standards, the WHO said.

In an attempt to balance medical privacy with the ability to verify – and possibly revoke – vaccine certificates, the WHO proposed a certificate that captures only barebones information about the holder, but a lot of detail about exactly what vaccines they have received.

Vaccine certificate

Capturing the vaccine batch number will in theory allow manual third-party verifiers, those who just read a printed or cellphone-displayed version of the certificate, to check against vaccines that may be withdrawn from eligibility in future.

But ideally there should be a detailed process in place, the WHO says, if a certificate has to be withdrawn "in case fraud has occurred, incorrect information needs to be rectified, faulty vaccine batches have been discovered or issues have been detected within the vaccine supply chain."

That is most easily achieved if third parties, such as those handling access control at stadium entrances, can electronically verify certificates against a central government database.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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