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Could Illinois Become Leader In Vaccine Passport Gold Rush? – Patch.com

Could Illinois Become Leader In Vaccine Passport Gold Rush? – Patch.com

CHICAGO — J.B. Pritzker this week became one of the nation’s first governors to express unflinching support for vaccine passports, specifically a digital app that provides a person’s coronavirus immunization status. “I do like the idea, though, that everybody will have with them easily on their device — most people carry their devices with them

CHICAGO — J.B. Pritzker this week became one of the nation’s first governors to express unflinching support for vaccine passports, specifically a digital app that provides a person’s coronavirus immunization status.

“I do like the idea, though, that everybody will have with them easily on their device — most people carry their devices with them — some way to show that they’ve been vaccinated,” the governor said.

Pritzker’s talking about the kind of technology that’s quietly being developed by the University of Illinois’ taxpayer-funded, for-profit COVID-19 company, Shield T3 LLC, which is currently hawking its coronavirus monitoring system — complete with rapid saliva tests, mobile laboratories and a smartphone app — nationwide.

Before getting elected governor, Pritzker’s greatest private-sector success was using his inherited fortune to fund 1871 Chicago, which is now ranked as one of the world’s top technology incubators.

Now, Pritzker is proudly throwing his support — and promising Illinois taxpayers will be Shield T3’s “biggest customer” — behind the U of I health-and-technology startup angling to become a coronavirus-related business worth billions.

Bill Sullivan, head of Rokwire — the digital platform that supports development of the Safer Community app that allows for reserving COVID-19 tests, tracking results and gaining access to buildings at universities and, most recently, a downstate school system — told Patch his team is already working on a vaccine passport function.

Source: University of Illinois

“It’s not a problem for us to build it into an app. It’s just another health entry. Right now on the [Safer Community] app I can see all the [COVID-19] tests I’ve taken since July,” Sullivan said. “There can be a screen for vaccines, as well. … We’re working on that on the back end. But we’re the app builders, and not the deciders.”

There’s plenty of controversy surrounding vaccine passports — whether they’re required for entry to a restaurant, public gathering or airline flight — that are being rolled out in Europe and in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has partnered with IBM to test the so-called Excelsior Pass.

Critics argue that vaccine passports could widen the gap between “elites and non-elites”; compound existing race, class, gender and citizenship inequities; and risk challenging “basic liberties of mobility, interstate and international commerce, and privacy.”

Some people worry that folks who don’t have up-to-date smartphones or didn’t get vaccinated due to allergies, health conditions or religious objections could be excluded from attending public gatherings or eating indoors at restaurants.

On Thursday, Pritzker said he wasn’t concerned about potential exclusionary consequences of vaccine passports.

“As long as it is your choice,” Pritzker said. “If people ask you to show that for a particular venue or private venue, they have the ability and right to do that. You don’t have to show that to them. You don’t have to be to go to that venue or be engaged in that activity.”

There’s another question about whether Shield T3 should expand the Safer Community app into the vaccine passport business, Sullivan says: “Who is going to believe it?

“We can [create a vaccine passport] to use in a reliable fashion on our campus. … But what if I wanted to get in a federal courthouse in Chicago? Would they believe it based on the University of Illinois trusting it? Would United Airlines believe our Illinois-based app?”

Sullivan makes a good point as technology and health companies fight to position themselves as leaders in what amounts to coronavirus vaccine passport gold rush to cash in on government contracts.

Plus, we are talking about technology produced by a for-profit offshoot of a public university in America’s second-most-corrupt state trying to make a buck on the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Illinois-based group saliva test has already stirred up minor controversy. In the fall, Shield T3 officials, Pritzker and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) falsely claimed in public statements and news releases that the test had won emergency use approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The university-associated company was allowed to continue using the test only on the Champaign-Urbana campus until this month, when the FDA approved emergency use of the test. That cleared the way for the company to market the coronavirus testing ecosystem nationally.

Whether Shield T3 LLC expands its COVID-19 testing business to include the kind of vaccine passport that the governor favors will be decided by the university-related organization‘s board of managers, who stand to receive compensation if the company is successful, led by principal officer Bill Jackson.

Jackson also is the interim director of Discovery Partners Institute — another university-related organization partly funded by $500,000 in taxpayer cash and $10 million from the Pritzker Foundation. He also helped advise the governor’s pandemic policy.

On Thursday, Jackson said the Shield T3 team remains focused on the current national push of its coronavirus saliva tests for use at universities and private companies in Tennessee, Maine, Wisconsin and California — most recently to the electric car maker, Rivian, which donated $500,000 to Shield with plans to use the tests at its manufacturing plants.

But adding the vaccine passport to the existing app is the future.

“We talked about it. We know we can do it. There’s not a big push because we’re just getting our testing out. We’re rolling five test labs … but we know it’s going to come. There’s no doubt about it,” Jackson said. “Could you see Safer Illinois win the application [for national backing by the federal government]? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not?”

What’s certain is that the federal government is well aware of the Shield T3 team’s national ambitions.

In September, Illinois Sens. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and the Illinois congressional delegation urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to adopt the Shield T3 coronavirus test and contact-tracing system.

In December, the Shield T3 team pitched the Biden administration on a plan to use its rapid saliva tests as the backbone of a national testing strategy that would build rapid coronavirus testing labs at every major university and testing hubs in America’s top 25 big cities — each with the capacity to process 100,000 tests a day.

The Shield T3 team pitched President Biden’s administration on using its rapid coronavirus saliva test nationally. Source: University of Illinois.

The proposal also called for building mobile testing labs with capacity to process 10,000 daily specimens in 50 medium-size cities. The national effort would cost more than $4.8 billion over four months. All of it would be paid for by local health departments through federal stimulus funding earmarked for coronavirus testing expansion, according to the confidential proposal obtained by Patch.

Source: University of Illinois

The 46-page proposal also called for redesigning contact tracing systems using the Safer Community app, which the Safer team said has helped contact tracing within three hours of a positive test result and also operates as a testing-based passport for access to university buildings where it has been deployed.

“Could you easily modify them to be passports to be used with vaccines? The answer is yes. We’ve been using these passports for six to nine months already. This is not a revelation for us,” Jackson said.

“But they’re done in [university] communities that are enclosed, that have control over it. … You can’t get in a building without a passport. There’s been tons of pushback about privacy, which we’ve solved. But there’s a lot of education to do about these passports.”

Jackson said he expects a growing national desire for a quicker return to social gatherings that feel more like 2019 will lead to more people accepting coronavirus-status passports.

“In the broader world, in order to get adoption, you’ll have to get buy-in. You want to get in an NFL game, but can’t because you don’t have a passport. That’s going to drive adoption,” Jackson said.

“We will need both a testing and vaccine passport. … If 30 percent of people don’t get vaccinated, what are we going to do there? We still don’t have a vaccine for those under 16. You need both.”

Not everybody agrees with Pritzker and Jackson on whether it’s a good idea for anyone to require proof of vaccination to participate in public gatherings.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance, has emerged as an outspoken opponent of vaccine passports and has said they won’t be used in his state.

“To start going down the road of vaccine passports, I mean, you have some of these states saying to go to a sporting event, you have to show either a negative test or a vaccine proof. I think you just got to make decisions. If you want to go to an event, go to an event. If you don’t, don’t,” DeSantis said.

“But to be requiring people to provide all this proof, that’s not how you get society back to normal, so we’re rejecting any vaccine passports here in the state of Florida.”

But at U of I’s Urbana-Champaign campus, Jackson said Shield’s testing passport app that was required for access to university buildings became beloved in the surrounding community — part of a region that posted the lowest coronavirus-test postiivy rates in the state.

“Guess what happened. People loved it, and some bar owners said you can’t get in the bar without the passport. It naturally evolves. Just think, if you were going to bar, you’d want to go where everybody is as safe as you are, right?. You’re more likely to pick the bar that required the passport than not. I think it’s already proven that it can work in these settings. The sad thing is that if we had adopted [virus-status passports] earlier, we would have been able to have more [businesses] open earlier.”

With Illinois’ billionaire techno-incubator governor firmly behind the effort, Shield T3 is poised to either emerge as a major player in the national coronavirus-tech industry or a cautionary tale of public-private partnerships aiming to cash in on a global crisis in the name of the public good.

Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” He was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN, and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”

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