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COVID-19

Meet the German team developing the EU’s first vaccine passport

From video calls involving 130 people to no-shows at the general rehearsal, Josef Lieven and his team of software engineers faced their share of challenges on the road to Europe's digital Covid certificate.

Meet the German team developing the EU's first vaccine passport
An example of a digital vaccine passport, displayed in Potsdam on May 27th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild-Pool | Soeren Stache

But some 10 weeks later, they are ready to launch the region’s first online “vaccine passport”, with the lofty aim of making summer travel easier for Europeans.

“There’s a feeling of relief, and also pride that we managed to do it,” said Lieven from T-Systems, who jointly led the IT project with fellow German firm SAP.

The European Commission tasked both companies with developing a digital certificate that says whether a person has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, has tested negative or recovered from a coronavirus infection.

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The information is stored in a QR code that can be scanned and recognised by the 27 members of the European Union plus their neighbours Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

The application, often dubbed the “vaccine passport”, is the first digital health portal to be accepted across EU borders, while adhering to the bloc’s strict data protection laws.

“Even if it was challenging, we’ve come up with a solution in Europe that many other, even hi-tech regions and countries don’t have yet,” Lieven told AFP in a phone interview.

The digital vaccination certificates are currently being tested out in some vaccine centres across Germany. 

Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Systems and software maker SAP last year already created Germany’s privacy-conscious contact-tracing app.

They were later commissioned by Brussels to make several national virus-tracing apps talk to each other to better track the pandemic across borders.

Developing the software for the new digital health pass was “similar”, Lieven said, “but also more complex” because more countries wanted to have a say from the start.

And of course, time was of the essence with governments eager to make travel and tourism feel as normal as possible from July 1st, the kick-off to Europe’s crucial summer holiday season.

READ ALSO: When will tourism in Germany open up again?

False start

Using the same teams that worked on the previous corona apps, Lieven and his engineers started coding for the prototype before they even had the full specifications.

The European Parliament and EU member states reached a political deal on the certificate on May 20th, and until then there was always a risk that countries would demand unexpected changes.

Writing the software itself was just a part of the task, Lieven said, with data protection, safety issues and the immense international coordination all needing attention.

Lieven said one of the most “exciting” moments was the weekly video call where 130 representatives from participating countries got together to exchange updates or raise issues.

The final three weeks were the most stressful, dedicated to meticulously testing the link-up between each country’s national system and European servers.

Things didn’t get off to a smooth start when the two countries who were meant to launch the critical testing phase weren’t ready on the first day.

“So that Monday, we had no one we could test with. That was a surprise,” Lieven recalled.

But the kinks were resolved by the next day and “everything worked like a charm”.

Lieven is now looking forward to using the app for his own benefit. During a recent trip to see his son in Denmark, Lieven told him that “the next time you visit, your trip will be easier with the digital certificate”.

Member comments

  1. Is the app going to be available in the app stores for non EU countries? (In my case the US) I’m guessing no one knows this yet but if you find out can you please share?

    I have a hard time getting some apps because my app store for iOS is still the US. I have too much purchased there to permanently switch. Also, anytime I’ve switched to get an app my other Apple products treat me like a different person for a while.

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

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COVID-19

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.

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