China on Saturday said it was imposing a record $2.8 billion fine on the e-commerce titan Alibaba for monopolistic business practices, the government’s toughest action to date in its campaign to regulate the country’s internet giants more closely.
Beijing’s market watchdog began investigating Alibaba in December for potential antitrust violations including preventing merchants from selling their goods on other shopping platforms. On Saturday, the regulator said its investigation had concluded that Alibaba had hindered competition in online retail in China, affected innovation in the internet economy and harmed consumers’ interests.
The fine on Alibaba, one of China’s most valuable private companies, exceeds the $975 million antitrust penalty that the Chinese government imposed on Qualcomm, the American chip giant, in 2015. Even so, it is unlikely to leave a substantial dent on Alibaba’s fortunes. The regulator said the fine represented 4 percent of Alibaba’s domestic sales in 2019. The group reported profits of more than $12 billion in the last three months of 2020 alone.
Alibaba said in a statement that it would accept the penalty “sincerely” and would strengthen its internal systems “to better carry out its social responsibilities.”
proposed updating the country’s antimonopoly law with a new provision for large internet platforms such as Alibaba’s. In November, officials halted the plans of Alibaba’s sister company, the finance-focused Ant Group, to go public and tightened oversight of internet finance.
In December, it opened the antimonopoly investigation into Alibaba — a startling turn in the fortunes of Jack Ma, Alibaba’s co-founder, whom people in China had long held up as an icon of entrepreneurial pluck.
Skepticism about the clout of large internet companies has been on the rise in the United States and Europe, too. Western regulators have repeatedly fined Goliaths such as Google in recent years for various antitrust violations. But such penalties generally have not changed the nature of the companies’ businesses enough to mitigate concerns about their power.
WASHINGTON — President Biden outlined a vast expansion of federal spending on Friday, calling for a 16 percent increase in domestic programs as he tries to harness the government’s power to reverse what officials called a decade of underinvestment in the nation’s most pressing issues.
The proposed $1.52 trillion in spending on discretionary programs would significantly bolster education, health research and fighting climate change. It comes on top of Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package and a separate plan to spend $2.3 trillion on the nation’s infrastructure.
Mr. Biden’s first spending proposal to Congress showcases his belief that expanding, not shrinking, the federal government is crucial to economic growth and prosperity. It would direct billions of dollars toward reducing inequities in housing and education, as well as making sure every government agency puts climate change at the front of its agenda.
It does not include tax proposals, economic projections or so-called mandatory programs like Social Security, which will all be included in a formal budget document the White House will release this spring. And it does not reflect the spending called for in Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan or other efforts he has yet to roll out, which are aimed at workers and families.
Trump administration’s efforts to gut domestic programs.
But Mr. Biden’s plan, while incomplete as a budget, could provide a blueprint for Democrats who narrowly control the House and Senate and are anxious to reassert their spending priorities after four years of a Republican White House.
Democratic leaders in Congress hailed the plan on Friday and suggested they would incorporate it into government spending bills for the 2022 fiscal year. The plan “proposes long overdue and historic investments in jobs, worker training, schools, food security, infrastructure and housing,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Shalanda D. Young, who is serving as Mr. Biden’s acting budget director, told congressional leaders that the discretionary spending process would be an “important opportunity to continue laying a stronger foundation for the future and reversing a legacy of chronic disinvestment in crucial priorities.”
The administration is focusing on education spending in particular, seeing that as a way to help children escape poverty. Mr. Biden asked Congress to bolster funding to high-poverty schools by $20 billion, which it describes as the largest year-over-year increase to the Title I program since its inception under President Lyndon B. Johnson. The program provides funding for schools that have high numbers of students from low-income families, most often by providing remedial programs and support staff.
The plan also seeks billions of dollars in increases to early-childhood education, to programs serving students with disabilities and to efforts to staff schools with nurses, counselors and mental health professionals — described as an attempt to help children recover from the pandemic, but also a longstanding priority for teachers’ unions.
Mr. Biden heralded the education funding in remarks to reporters at the White House. “The data shows that it puts a child from a household that is a lower-income household in a position if they start school — not day care — but school at 3 and 4 years old, there’s overwhelming evidence that they will compete all the way through high school and beyond,” he said.
There is no talk in the plans of tying federal dollars to accountability measures for teachers and schools, as they often were under President Barack Obama.
his vision of having every cabinet chief, whether they are military leaders, diplomats, fiscal regulators or federal housing planners, charged with incorporating climate change into their missions.
The proposal aims to embed climate programs into agencies that are not usually seen as at the forefront of tackling global warming, like the Agriculture and Labor Departments. That money would be in addition to clean energy spending in Mr. Biden’s proposed infrastructure legislation, which would pour about $500 billion on programs such as increasing electric vehicle production and building climate-resilient roads and bridges.
Strategic National Stockpile, the country’s emergency medical reserve, for supplies and efforts to restructure it that began last year. Nearly $7 billion would create an agency meant to research diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Reporting was contributed by Coral Davenport, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Lisa Friedman, Brad Plumer, Christopher Flavelle, Mark Walker, Dana Goldstein, Mark Walker, Noah Weiland, Margot Sanger-Katz, Lara Jakes, Noam Scheiber, Katie Benner and Emily Cochrane.
The marble idol was carved as many as 6,000 years ago, a 9-inch-tall female figure with a sleek, abstract form, its head tilted slightly upward as if staring into the firmament.
By the 1960s the idol had been transported to the United States, where it was in the possession of the court tennis star and art collector Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife, Edith, and known as “The Guennol Stargazer.”
Christie’s listed the stargazer for sale in 2017, drawing the attention of the Turkish government, which asked for the auction to be halted.
The Turkish government then sued Christie’s, saying the idol had been looted. The government asked the court to find that it is the rightful owner of the idol and cited the 1906 Ottoman Decree, which asserts broad ownership of antiquities found in Turkey. But the auction proceeded and the idol fetched a price of $14.4 million, before the unidentified buyer backed away.
agreed to return a collection known as the Lydian Hoard, which included more than 200 gold, silver and bronze objects from the reign of King Croesus of Lydia, a kingdom in western Asia Minor that flourished in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.
And in 2012, the government of Turkey asked museums in Los Angeles, New York and Washington to turn over dozens of artifacts it said were looted from the country’s archaeological sites.
It is generally accepted that the item at issue in the lawsuit originated in Kulaksizlar, the home of the only workshop known to have produced the stargazers. The figures were so-called because of the angle at which a large head rests on a thin neck, Christie’s said in an online description, creating “the whimsical impression of the figure staring up at the heavens.”
When the Guennol Stargazer was first listed for auction, Christie’s said it was “considered to be one of the most impressive of its type known to exist,” adding that it had been on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at various periods from 1966 to 2007.
The Turkish government said that one of its witnesses, Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, would provide “comprehensive scientific evidence” for his conclusion that the idol was almost certainly found in Turkey.
for part of the Lydian Hoard. (The museum’s former director, Thomas Hoving, once referred to Klejman as among his “favorite dealer-smugglers.”)
Christie’s and Steinhardt have maintained that the Turkish government cannot prove ownership of the idol under the 1906 decree because it has “no direct evidence of where or when the Stargazer Idol was found, excavated or exported: it has no witnesses to the excavation or export and no photographs.”
The defendants also have said that Turkey knew about the presence of the idol in New York as early as 1992 but did not act on that knowledge.
“Turkey’s 25-year delay in making its claim baited the trap for dealers, collectors and auction houses,” defense lawyers said in court papers. “And set them up for huge losses when Turkey claimed the Idol only after it came up for sale at a major auction house.”
We don’t know exactly what Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, will present when she becomes the country’s first woman to deliver a federal budget later this month. But the Liberal government has made it abundantly clear that economic and employment recovery will be its broad theme.
paints a dire picture for one group of workers whose employment is threatened by much more than the pandemic. It forecasts that as the world grapples with climate change, reduced demand for oil and gas will cause to 50 to 75 percent of 600,000 jobs in Canada’s energy sector to vanish.
Beata Caranci, the bank’s chief economist and the main author of the report, told me that while she anticipates the budget will include something for energy workers, the work to transition them to new jobs in the low carbon world should already be underway.
hollowing out of middle income jobs. Wealth and jobs, in turn, became concentrated in a handful of cities.
But in Canada the loss of manufacturing work was offset by well paying jobs in the expanding Canadian energy industry. The rise of fly-in, fly-out work, in which residents of Atlantic Canada and elsewhere commuted to jobs in the oil sands, spread those economic benefits around the country.
visited Canada regularly from 1951, Marilyn Berger writes that he “tried to shepherd into the 20th century a monarchy encrusted with the trappings of the 19th. But as pageantry was upstaged by scandal, as regal weddings were followed by sensational divorces, his mission, as he saw it, changed. Now it was to help preserve the crown itself.” And in Opinion, Tina Brown, author of the forthcoming book “The Palace Papers,” offers her assessment of the Duke of Edinburgh.
Canada is among the nations seized by vaccine envy.
Robert A. Mundell, the Nobel Prize winning economist who was born in Kingston, Ontario, has died. He championed the idea that low tax rates and easy fiscal policies should be used to spur economies, and that higher interest rates and tight monetary policy were the proper tools to curb inflation. Former President Ronald Reagan embraced Professor Mundell’s ideas. Their effects remain a matter of debate.
Vaccine passports might reopen the world. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is among those concerned fairness of a two-tier system for haves and have-nots.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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MOSCOW — Armored personnel carriers bristling with weapons line a highway in southern Russia. Rows of tanks are parked beside major roads. Heavy artillery is transported by train.
Videos of military movements have flooded Russian social media for the past month, shared by users and documented by researchers.
And Western governments are trying to find out why. The movements appear to be the largest deployment of Russian land forces toward the border with Ukraine in seven years, according to the U.S. government.
Whether it is a test of how the Biden administration might respond, retaliation against Ukraine for curbing Russian influence in domestic politics in Kyiv, or preparation for actual cross-border military action has divided analysts of Russian policies.
said Russia would intervene to prevent ethnic cleansing of Russian speakers by the Ukrainian government, a risk he compared to the ethnic massacres of the 1990s Balkan wars, though there are no signs that such violence is imminent in Ukraine today.
said Kyiv “lives with an illusion of a possible forceful settlement” of the conflict.
wrote, led Mr. Putin to warn in a speech given to the Davos Forum of an “increase in the risk of unilateral use of military force,” refraining from mentioning which country might be using that force.
published in the Insider, a Russian investigative news site.
A wide range of weaponry has been on public display. In March, for example, a train hauling Msta-C self-propelled howitzers rumbled over a bridge across the Kerch Strait separating Russia’s mainland from Crimea.
The Russian airwaves, too, have been chockablock with reports of a possible resumption of war in eastern Ukraine.
“Bad news from Ukraine,” the commentator Dmitry Kiselyov said in opening his Sunday talk show this week on state Channel 1. “The talk in Ukraine is increasingly about war.”
Mr. Kiselyov mocked war jitters in Ukraine, where the government has been trying to portray a calm resolve; the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, visited the front on Thursday.
The Russian state television report lingered on an incident in the Ukrainian Parliament this month when a lawmaker, Anna Kolesnik, after hearing a presentation from a military commander on the scale of Russia’s forces massed at her nation’s border, wrote a phone message to an acquaintance saying, “it’s time to split from this country.”
Mr. Kiselyov noted that in Ukraine, “the fear is inflating.”
Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, an analytical organization based in Arlington, Va., said the Russian buildup seems targeted more at shifting Ukraine’s stance in settlement talks than countering U.S. sanctions.
“Saber-rattling is an oversimplification,” he said. “It is coercive diplomacy with a purpose,” though for now that purpose is unstated and left open to interpretation by Ukraine and Western governments. “That is the situation we are in.”
With Covid-19 vaccinations accelerating, attention is turning to tools for people to prove that they have been inoculated and potentially bypass the suffocating restrictions used to fight the pandemic.
Though the idea is meeting some resistance over privacy and equity concerns, several types of coronavirus vaccination records, sometimes called “vaccine passports,” already exist, in paper and digital form. Hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with new, electronic versions, and the number grows daily, although so far their use has been very limited.
Portable vaccine records are an old idea: Travelers to many parts of the world, children enrolling in school and some health care workers have long had to supply them as proof that they have been vaccinated against diseases.
But vaccine passports use digital tools that take the concept to new levels of sophistication, and experts predict that electronic verification will soon become commonplace, particularly for international air travel, but also for admission to crowded spaces like theaters.
“yellow card,” used for decades by travelers to show inoculation against diseases like yellow fever. But those are on paper, filled out by hand and fairly vulnerable to forgery.
The tool might have to address several variables: It is unclear how long inoculation lasts, there can be bad batches and the emergence of new variants of the virus are likely to require new vaccines. So in the long run, an electronic record might need to show which specific vaccine a person received, from which batch and when.
More than a dozen competing versions are already being developed and promoted.
using CommonPass, developed by the Commons Project, a Swiss-based nonprofit, with support from the World Economic Forum. Lufthansa passengers flying into the United States can also use it.
The same month, Singapore Airlines became the first carrier to make limited use of Travel Pass for people flying between Singapore and London, and will put it into wide use in May.
Also in March, New York State became the first government in the United States to implement a system, the Excelsior Pass, developed with IBM, which some venues have used to prove vaccination. The governors of Florida and Texas have vowed to block any such system in their states, calling it government overreach and an invasion of privacy.
Vaccine Credential Initiative, to develop a broadly agreed-upon set of open standards, meaning that the software underlying a verification system is transparent and it can adapt easily to other systems, while safeguarding privacy. The W.H.O. has a similar initiative, the Smart Vaccination Certificate.
But several companies are creating closed, proprietary systems that they hope to sell to clients, and some apparently would have access to users’ information.
One concern is that a profusion of systems might not be compatible, defeating the purpose of making it easy to check someone’s status.
Another objection is that any requirement to prove vaccination status would discriminate against those who can’t get the shot or refuse to, and there is lingering uncertainty about how well inoculation prevents virus transmission.
For those reasons, the W.H.O. said this week that it does not support requiring proof of vaccination for travel — for now.
KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — A volcano in the southern Caribbean that had been dormant for decades erupted on Friday, spewing clouds of ash and smoke miles into the sky.
The volcano, known as La Soufrière, on the northern tip of the main island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, had started showing signs of renewed activity in late December. It moved into an “explosive state” on Friday morning, the National Emergency Management Organization said in a Twitter posting.
thanks to a hastily arranged evacuation of residents to local beaches. Its ash reached as far as Barbados, 100 miles east. An earlier eruption, in 1902, killed nearly 1,700 people.
Cecilia Jewett, 72, a roads supervisor with the government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said she suffered through the 1979 eruption and recalled the scenes of panic and the desperate scramble for water, the sky darkened by ash and the overpowering stench of sulfur. Her father, she said, experienced the deadly 1902 event, and told stories of victims buried in ash, and corpses lying in the streets.
“Those stories come back to my mind on hearing that the La Soufrière was acting up,” she recalled when interviewed last December. “It’s just too much. These young people would not understand. They think it’s just an explosion.”
“The sulfur, what it does to your eyes, your breathing, your very existence,” she continued. “It was a time I would not want to relive.”
Government officials began conducting outreach last winter in areas closest to the volcano, briefing residents on evacuation protocols in case of an eruption, Mr. Gonsalves said in an interview in January.
The prime minister acknowledged then the challenges of conducting emergency operations during the pandemic but said that strict health protocols — like the obligatory use of masks and social distancing where possible — would be in place during evacuations and in shelters.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines has a population of 110,000 spread across three dozen islands. Most people live around the capital, Kingstown, on the southwestern coast of St. Vincent island. Though known as a boaters’ paradise, the country also has high rates of poverty and unemployment.
Ernesto Cooke reported from Kingstown, and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.
NEW DELHI — When the coronavirus first struck India last year, the country enforced one of the world’s strictest national lockdowns. The warning was clear: A fast spread in a population of 1.3 billion would be devastating.
Though damaging and ultimately flawed, the lockdown and other efforts appeared to work. Infections dropped and deaths remained low. Officials and the public dropped their guard. Experts warned fruitlessly that the government’s haphazard approach would bring a crisis when a new wave appeared.
Now the crisis is here.
India on Friday reported a daily record of 131,878 new infections as Covid-19 races out of control. Deaths, while still relatively low, are rising. Vaccinations, a mammoth task in such a large nation, are dangerously behind schedule. Hospital beds are running short.
Parts of the country are reinforcing lockdowns. Scientists are rushing to track new strains, including the more hazardous variants found in Britain and South Africa, that may be hastening the spread. But the authorities have declared contact tracing in some places to be simply impossible.
now behind the United States and Brazil.) The economic blowback of the resulting lockdown was devastating.
But the numbers at the time actually understated the first wave, scientists now say, and deaths in India never matched levels of the United States or Britain. Leaders began acting as if the problem had been solved.
Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, boasted of a major stockpile of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which makes up the bulk of the country’s drive. The government even launched a “vaccine diplomacy” campaign that sent doses to other countries.
But the initial rollout within India was slowed by complacency and plagued with public skepticism, including questions about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and lack of disclosure about an Indian-developed dose. Now the vaccination program is not matching the spread. The Serum Institute has said that practically all of its daily production of about two million doses will over the next two months go to the government, delaying commitments to other countries.
Several Indian states now worry that their vaccines stocks will run out. Mumbai, India’s largest city, had shut more than half of its vaccination centers, local media reported on Friday. The central government’s health minister lashed out at the states, reassuring that there would be no shortage and that more supplies were in the pipeline.
hit the campaign trail for state elections. Prime Minister Modi has addressed more than 20 rallies, each with thousands of often-unmasked people.
On Wednesday, Delhi officials said that even a solo car driver would be punished for not wearing a mask properly. The same day, Amit Shah, the country’s de facto No. 2 leader, drove through a campaign crowd in the state of West Bengal, waving without a mask and throwing rose petals.
The government also gave the go ahead for a long Hindu religious festival called Kumbh Mela, which runs through the end of April. Between one million to five million people attend the festival each day in the city of Hardiwar, on the banks of the river Ganges in the state of Uttarakhand.
no one would face restrictions as “the faith in God will overcome the fear of Covid-19.” Days later, Mr. Rawat tested positive for Covid.
The positivity rate of random tests is rising at the festival, and more than 300 participants have tested positive, said Dr. Arjun Singh Senger, a health officer at the festival.
The sheer speed of new infections has surprised health officials, who wonder whether variants might be a factor. Answering that question will be difficult. India has put only about 1 percent of its cases through genome sequencing tests, according to Dr. Reddy, of the Public Health Foundation of India, but researchers require a minimum of 5 percent to determine what is circulating.
So far, the government has found variants from the U.K. and South Africa as well as a local mutation. Limited information suggests that more infectious variants are circulating in India, as well, Dr. Reddy said.
Even if the variants have not yet been a major part of the new wave of infections, they have cast a shadow over India’s crucial vaccination drive. The AstraZeneca vaccine has been rejected by South Africa ineffective against that variant.
“This time, the speed is much faster than the last time,” said Dr. Vinod K. Paul, the head of India’s Covid response task force. “The next four weeks are very, very crucial for us.”
The prospect of a fourth wave of the coronavirus, with new cases climbing sharply in the Upper Midwest, has reignited a debate among vaccine experts over how long to wait between the first and second doses. Extending that period would swiftly increase the number of people with the partial protection of a single shot, but some experts fear it could also give rise to dangerous new variants.
In the United States, two-dose vaccines are spaced three to four weeks apart, matching what was tested in clinical trials. But in Britain, health authorities have delayed doses by up to 12 weeks in order to reach more people more quickly. And in Canada, which has precious few vaccines to go around, a government advisory committee recommended on Wednesday that second doses be delayed even longer, up to four months.
Some health experts think the United States should follow suit. Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a co-director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, has proposed that for the next few weeks, all U.S. vaccines should go to people receiving their first dose.
“That should be enough to quell the fourth surge, especially in places like Michigan, like Minnesota,” he said in an interview. Dr. Emanuel and his colleagues published the proposal in an op-ed on Thursday in USA Today.
10 days after the first dose, researchers could see that the volunteers were getting sick less often than those who got the placebo.
In the same month, Britain experienced a surge of cases caused by a new, highly transmissible variant called B.1.1.7. Once the British government authorized two vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca — it decided to fight the variant by delaying the second doses of both formulations by 12 weeks.
said on Jan. 31 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But the government stayed the course, arguing that it would be unwise to veer off into the unknown in the middle of a pandemic. Although the clinical trials did show some early protection from the first dose, no one knew how well that partial protection would last.
“When you’re talking about doing something that may have real harm, you need empirical data to back that,” said Dr. Céline R. Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center and a member of Mr. Biden’s coronavirus advisory board. “I don’t think you can logic your way out of this.”
But in recent weeks, proponents of delaying doses have been able to point to mounting evidence suggesting that a first dose can provide potent protection that lasts for a number of weeks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that two weeks after a single dose of either the Moderna or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a person’s risk of coronavirus infection dropped by 80 percent. And researchers in Britain have found that first-dose protection is persistent for at least 12 weeks.
Dr. Emanuel argued that Britain’s campaign to get first doses into more people had played a role in the 95 percent drop in cases since their peak in January. “It’s been pretty stunning,” Dr. Emanuel said.
studies that show that a single dose of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech does not work as well against certain variants, such as B.1.351, which was first found in South Africa.
“Relying on one dose of Moderna or Pfizer to stop variants like B.1.351 is like using a BB gun to stop a charging rhino,” said John P. Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Dr. Moore said he also worried that delaying doses could promote the spread of new variants that can better resist vaccines. As coronaviruses replicate inside the bodies of some vaccinated people, they may acquire mutations that allow them to evade the antibodies generated by the vaccine.
But Dr. Cobey, who studies the evolution of viruses, said she wasn’t worried about delayed doses breeding more variants. “I would put my money on it having the opposite effect,” she said.
Last week, she and her colleagues published a commentary in Nature Reviews Immunology in defense of delaying doses. Getting more people vaccinated — even with moderately less protection — could translate into a bigger brake on the spread of the virus in a community than if fewer people had stronger protection, they said. And that decline wouldn’t just mean more lives were saved. Variants would also have a lower chance of emerging and spreading.
“There are fewer infected people in which variants can arise,” she said.
Dr. Adam S. Lauring, a virologist at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the commentary, said he felt that Dr. Cobey and her colleagues had made a compelling case. “The arguments in that piece really resonate with me,” he said.
Although it seems unlikely that the United States will shift course, its neighbor to the north has embraced a delayed strategy to cope with a booming pandemic and a short supply of vaccines.
Dr. Catherine Hankins, a public health specialist at McGill University in Montreal and a member of Canada’s Covid-19 Immunity Task Force, endorsed that decision, based on the emerging evidence about single doses. And she said she thought that other countries facing even worse shortfalls should consider it as well.
“I will be advocating at the global level that countries take a close look at Canada’s strategy and think seriously about it,” Dr. Haskins said.
LONDON — For Aruba, a Caribbean idyll that has languished since the pandemic drove away its tourists, the concept of a “vaccine passport” is not just intriguing. It is a “lifeline,” said the prime minister, Evelyn Wever-Croes.
Aruba is already experimenting with a digital certificate that allows visitors from the United States who tested negative for the coronavirus to breeze through the airport and hit the beach without delay. Soon, it may be able to fast-track those who arrive with digital confirmation that they have been vaccinated.
“People don’t want to stand in line, especially with social distancing,” Ms. Wever-Croes said in an interview this week. “We need to be ready in order to make it hassle-free and seamless for the travelers.”
Vaccine passports are increasingly viewed as the key to unlocking the world after a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns — a few bytes of personal health data, encoded on a chip, that could put an end to suffocating restrictions and restore the freewheeling travel that is a hallmark of the age of globalization. From Britain to Israel, these passports are taking shape or already in use.
But they are also stirring complicated political and ethical debates about discrimination, inequality, privacy and fraud. And at a practical level, making them work seamlessly around the globe will be a formidable technical challenge.
The debate may play out differently in tourism- or trade-dependent outposts like Aruba and Singapore, which view passports primarily as a tool to reopen borders, than it will in vast economies like the United States or China, which have starkly divergent views on civil liberties and privacy.
The Biden administration said this week that it would not push for a mandatory vaccination credential or a federal vaccine database, attesting to the sensitive political and legal issues involved. In the European Union and Britain, which have taken tentative steps toward vaccine passports, leaders are running into thorny questions over their legality and technical feasibility.
And in Japan, which has lagged the United States and Britain in vaccinating its population, the debate has scarcely begun. There are grave misgivings there about whether passports would discriminate against people who cannot get a shot for medical reasons or choose not to be vaccinated.
Japan, like other Asian countries, has curbed the virus mainly through strict border controls.
“Whether or not to get vaccinated is up to the individual,” said Japan’s health minister, Norihisa Tamura. “The government should respond so that people won’t be disadvantaged by their decision.”
Still, almost everywhere, the pressure to restart international travel is forcing the debate. With tens of millions of people vaccinated, and governments desperate to reopen their economies, businesses and individuals are pushing to regain more freedom of movement. Verifying whether someone is inoculated is the simplest way to do that.
“There’s a very important distinction between international travel and domestic uses,” said Paul Meyer, the founder of the Commons Project, a nonprofit trust that is developing CommonPass, a scannable code that contains Covid testing and vaccination data for travelers. Aruba was the first government to sign up for it.
“There doesn’t seem to be any pushback on showing certification if I want to travel to Greece or Cyprus,” he said, pointing out that schools require students to be vaccinated against measles and many countries demand proof of yellow fever vaccinations. “From a public health perspective, it’s not fair to say, ‘You have no right to check whether I’m going to infect you.’”
CommonPass is one of multiple efforts by technology companies and others to develop reliable, efficient systems to verify the medical status of passengers — a challenge that will deepen as more people resume traveling.
At Heathrow Airport in London, which is operating at a fraction of its normal capacity, arriving passengers have had to line up for hours while immigration officials check whether they have proof of a negative test result and have purchased a mandatory kit to test themselves twice more after they enter the country.
Saudi Arabia announced this week that pilgrims visiting the mosques in Mecca and Medina during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan would have to show proof on a mobile app of being “immunized,” which officials defined as having been fully vaccinated, having gotten a single dose of a vaccine at least 14 days before arrival, or having recovered from Covid.
In neighboring United Arab Emirates, residents can show their vaccination status on a certificate through a government-developed app. So far, the certificate is not yet widely required for anything beyond entering the capital, Abu Dhabi, from abroad.
Few countries have gone farther in experimenting with vaccine passports than Israel. It is issuing a “Green Pass” that allows people who are fully vaccinated to go to bars, restaurants, concerts and sporting events. Israel has vaccinated more than half its population and the vast majority of its older people, which makes such a system useful but raises a different set of questions.
With people under 16 not yet eligible for the vaccine, the system could create a generational divide, depriving young people of access to many of the pleasures of their elders. So far, enforcement of the Green Pass has been patchy, and in any event, Israel has kept its borders closed.
So has China, which remains one of the most sealed-off countries in the world. In early March, the Chinese government announced it would begin issuing an “international travel health certificate,” which would record a user’s vaccination status, as well as the results of antibody tests. But it did not say whether the certificate would spare the user from China’s draconian quarantines.
Nor is it clear how eager other countries would be to recognize China’s certificate, given that Chinese companies have been slow in disclosing data from clinical trials of their homegrown vaccines.
Singapore has also maintained strict quarantines, even as it searches for way to restart foreign travel. Last week, it said it would begin rolling out a digital health passport, allowing passengers to use a mobile app to share their coronavirus test results before flying into the island nation.
Free movement across borders is the goal of the European Union’s “Digital Green Certificate.” The European Commission last month set out a plan for verifying vaccination status, which would allow a person to travel freely within the bloc. It left it up to its 27 member states to decide how to collect the health data.
That could avoid the pitfalls of the European Union’s vaccine rollout, which was heavily managed by Brussels and has been far slower than that in the United States or Britain. Yet analysts noted that in data collection, there is a trade-off between decentralized and centralized systems: the former tends to be better at protecting privacy but less efficient; the latter, more intrusive but potentially more effective.
“Given the very unequal access to vaccines we are witnessing in continental Europe, there is also an issue of equal opportunity and potential discrimination,” said Andrea Renda, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
For some countries, the legal and ethical implications have been a major stumbling block to domestic use of a passport. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada put it last month, “There are questions of fairness and justice.”
And yet in Britain, which has a deeply rooted aversion to national ID cards, the government is moving gingerly in that direction. Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week outlined broad guidelines for a Covid certificate, which would record vaccination status, test results, and whether the holder had recovered from Covid, which confers a degree of natural immunity for an unknown duration.
Mr. Johnson insisted that shops, pubs and restaurants would not be required to demand the certificate, though they could opt to do so on their own. That did not stop dozens of lawmakers, from his Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party, from opposing the plan on grounds that were legal, ethical and plainly commercial — that it could keep people out of the country’s beloved pubs.
Government officials now suggest that the plan is targeted less at pubs and restaurants and more at higher-risk settings, like nightclubs and sporting events.
“Would we rather have a system where no one can go to a sports ground or theater?” said Jonathan Sumption, a former justice on Britain’s Supreme Court, who has been an outspoken critic of the government’s strict lockdowns. “It’s better to have a vaccine passport than a blanket rule which excludes these pleasures from everybody.”
Reporting was contributed by Stephen Castle in London, Motoko Rich in Tokyo, Shashank Bengali in Singapore, Vivian Wang in Hong Kong, Vivian Yee in Cairo, Asmaa al-Omar in Beirut, and Ian Austen in Ottawa.