EU Chief Wrongly Raised Apple Risk in Push for Vaccine Passports

The European Commission is backing away from claims that Apple Inc. is talking to the World Health Organization about developing vaccine passports, an argument that its president, Ursula von der Leyen, had used to encourage governments to take matters into their own hands.

After a five-hour video call with the European Union’s 27 leaders on Thursday, von der Leyen told reporters that it was “important to have a European solution” to establish certificates to enable countries to reopen to travel because “Google and Apple are already offering solutions to the World Health Organization.”

Within hours, a spokesperson from the WHO said “neither Google nor Apple” were involved in the process and a person familiar with Apple’s position suggested that von der Leyen had misunderstood.

On Friday, a person close to the commission president said that her understanding was now that experts from some technology companies are working with the WHO on a private basis, but Apple employees aren’t among them.

The debate on the summit call focused on how to haul EU nations back to a form of normalcy after a pandemic that’s claimed more than 500,000 lives and shut down large parts of their economies. While there was broad support for vaccine passports of some sort, leaders couldn’t agree on the privileges they would grant, raising questions over the summer tourist season in some of the bloc’s hardest hit countries.

“We have all agreed that we need vaccine certificates,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the talks on Thursday. “In the future, it will certainly be good to have such a certificate but that will not mean that only those who have such a passport will be able to travel; about that, no political decisions have been made yet.”

EU Chief Wrongly Raised Apple Risk in Push for Vaccine Passports

Europe’s leaders have been anxious to find a response after facing criticism for a vaccination program that lagged behind the U.S. and U.K. There’s also the prospect of a third wave of infections leading again to stricter lockdowns.

The growing support for a digital certificate with common criteria such as vaccination, negative testing or immunity was helped by Merkel seeming to soften her stance on the matter, backing work on such a document, according to two people familiar with her remarks.

The Greek government, one of those most urgently pushing to restart travel, also flagged up the risk that tech firms could step into the gap that EU governments have left.

“If we as European Union don’t provide a solution, somebody else will, whether it’s going to be the U.S. big tech companies or somebody else, the solution will be provided,” Alex Patelis, chief economic adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, told Bloomberg. “Let’s get the infrastructure ready.”

EU Chief Wrongly Raised Apple Risk in Push for Vaccine Passports

While Europe’s bloc’s tourism-dependent economies, which suffered the steepest contractions last year, are determined to open their doors to those who have been inoculated, others have resisted such moves, citing a lack of convincing evidence that vaccination halts transmission as well as concerns over granting certain citizens special privileges and legal considerations.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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