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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 STATS

German hospitals see Covid staff shortages and rising patient numbers

A wave of Covid infections in Germany is causing staff shortages as many people call in sick and isolate - including in hospitals. The number of Covid patients in intensive care is also increasing slightly.

German hospitals see Covid staff shortages and rising patient numbers

Covid-19 infections are sweeping through the country this summer. On Tuesday, Germany reported 147,489 Covid cases within the latest 24 hour period, and 102 deaths.

The number of seriously ill Covid patients in intensive care units in Germany rose to 1,000 on Sunday, and 1,062 on Monday, according to the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine (DIVI). The number of ICU patients hasn’t been at this level since mid-May.

At the last highest point – in December 2021 – just under 4,900 seriously ill patients were being treated with Covid-19 in ICUs, after which the figures dropped with phases where they plateaued. 

And now the increasing staff shortages – due to people getting Covid and having to isolate – is causing growing concern among hospitals and doctors, especially as experts believe it will get worse after summer. 

“We are receiving reports from all federal states that individual wards and departments are having to be closed, due to a lack of staff,” the head of the board of the German Hospital Association (DKG), Gerald Gaß, told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

At times, emergency admissions are also being cancelled at rescue coordination centres. “This situation worries us considerably with a view to the upcoming autumn,” said Gaß.

READ ALSO: German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn

Infection figures have risen sharply in recent weeks. The 7-day incidence on Tuesday stood at 687.7 infections per 100,000 people, but experts believe many cases are going unreported. 

“Although the occupancy rate in intensive care is only rising moderately, it is relatively high for a summer, and the beds available are becoming fewer and fewer due to the shortage of staff,” the scientific director of the ICU registry, Christian Karagiannidis, told the Düsseldorf-based Rheinische Post on Tuesday.

He said clinics and hospitals should work to allocate capacity across the country.

“This includes regional networks for the best possible distribution of patients by level of care,” he said. “Cooperation, but also relieving the burden on staff, will be the order of the day this autumn and winter,” said Karagiannidis, who also sits on the government’s council of experts team.

Germany’s Covid-19 rules still require that people who get Covid isolate for at least five days or a maximum of 10 days. The rules differ from state to state on how people can end the quarantine period. But health and care workers need to have a negative Covid test (PCR or antigen) taken five days into isolation at the earliest before they can return to work, plus a prior 48-hour symptom-free period.

READ ALSO: The Covid rules in place across German states

The German Foundation for Patient Protection rejected a demand to shorten the quarantine period. Wolfgang Kubicki, vice-chairman of the FDP, had proposed people should be able to take a test after only three days to leave isolation.

This “fuels the uncontrolled spread of corona”, said Eugen Brysch, Chairman of the foundation. “That is why the isolation period for corona-positive patients must be extended to 10 days,” Brysch recommend, adding: “This may only be shortened if a PCR test is negative.”

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