BärCODE is helping Berlin return to public life
The Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité is helping the city of Berlin return to normal cultural and social life. Scientists at the BIH have developed a simple digital certification for rapid antigen tests and COVID-19 vaccines that cannot be forged and that respects data privacy. The BärCODE is generated at official testing and vaccine sites and can be scanned using a verification app to gain access to venues and events. The BärCODE project is funded by the Senate Department for Culture and is being run in collaboration with the Senate Department for Economics and the Senate Department for Health. It officially kicked off on May 1, 2021.
In a session on May 4, 2021, the Berlin Senate discussed the BärCODE project and gave it its full approval. Dr. Klaus Lederer, Senator for Culture and Europe, said, “I am grateful to the dedicated specialists at the BIH and Charité for developing the BärCODE concept. It is a model for creating meaningful, secure and reliable digital infrastructure. It provides greater security for dealing with the pandemic and doesn’t even burden Berliners with a new app. Furthermore, the Senate in its entirety and the business and public health sectors have been involved from the beginning. This shows how a sustainable system can be created for the whole city, and not just for the benefit of cultural institutions.”
Digital “seal and signature”
The BärCODE was developed by a team of scientists led by Professor Roland Eils, the founding director of the BIH Digital Health Center, and his colleague Harald Wagener. “The BärCODE is a digital version of the ‘seal and signature’ process. For each negative coronavirus test in Berlin, a bar code is generated that can be easily verified by mobile devices,” Eils explained. Wagener added, “Using ‘proof-of-no-COVID infrastructure’ (PoNCi), BärCODEs are generated on the basis of the test data and the signature key of the testing centers. They are linked to the results as a graphic that cannot be digitally forged. To gain admission to an event, citizens show the BärCODE to the organizer, who scans it using a special app and receives confirmation that the information is correct and digitally signed.” The validation process occurs entirely offline, so no internet connection is needed at the door, preventing overwhelmed servers from slowing down admission.
Wide range of uses – including as proof of vaccination
The BIH Digital Health Center at Charité developed the BärCODE independent of industry providers and with no profit motive. The BIH’s development team includes scientists from New Zealand, Sweden and the Netherlands living in Berlin. Their source code is entirely open source. Thus it can be vetted by the IT community for security and functionality and used by all actors in the realm of COVID management (e.g., the Corona warning app, the Luca app). The operation of the PoNCi server is comparatively inexpensive, and its use is being offered free of charge to all those involved in managing the COVID pandemic. The BärCODE can be used via interfaces across a variety of mobile apps and website services. It allows all residents of Berlin to show proof of their negative test results digitally and barrier free, thus facilitating their safe participation in social life.
The BärCODE can also be used to provide proof of vaccination. Berliners who need such proof have their coronavirus vaccination verified at a testing center and are given a BärCODE. The Federal Ministry of Health’s parallel efforts to create a nationwide electronic vaccine passport are also technically and organizationally streamlined with this infrastructure and with BärCODE procedures and could be used for its later introduction.
Charité is involved in the test phase
Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin will test the BärCODE during the pilot phase. At the moment, visitors are only allowed into Charité in exceptional cases and visitors must provide proof of a negative antigen test. During the pilot phase they can also do so using a BärCODE. “We’re pleased that Charité and the BIH Digital Health Center are able to use their digital expertise to facilitate participation in public life,” said Professor Heyo K. Kroemer, Chief Executive Officer of Charité. “The BärCODE is an impressive example of the huge potential the digitalization of medicine can have in the fight against the pandemic.” Professor Christopher Baum, Kroemer’s colleague on the Charité’s Executive Board and Chair of the BIH Board of Directors, concurred. “Our aim is to quickly translate research results into practical benefits. The BärCODE will hopefully make an important contribution to keeping Berliners healthy.”
Pilot project at the Philharmonie
On March 20, 2021, scientists from the BIH Digital Health Center participated in an early pilot project for the reopening of cultural life. After months of lockdown, the Berlin Philharmonic was allowed to play for an audience again for the first time. About 1,000 guests registered ahead of time, went to one of the testing centers or took a rapid test on-site, and were then able to attend and applaud the concert conducted by Kirill Petrenko. Roland Eils’s team helped to plan the event and supervised testing and admission at the Philharmonie. Most things were still done on paper, including the personalized tickets, certification of negative test results, and identity verification via ID cards. “We used our experience in this pilot project to develop the BärCODE. Now we have been able to create an easily usable digital certification that is secure against forgery and respects data privacy,” Eils proudly proclaimed.
Further information about the BärCODE can be found at: www.bärcode.de
About the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité
The mission of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) is medical translation: transferring biomedical research findings into novel approaches to personalized prediction, prevention, diagnostics and therapies and, conversely, using clinical observations to develop new research ideas. The aim is to deliver relevant medical benefits to patients and the population at large. As the translational research unit within Charité, the BIH is also committed to establishing a comprehensive translational ecosystem – one that places emphasis on a system-wide understanding of health and disease and that promotes change in the biomedical translational research culture. The BIH was founded in 2013 and is funded 90 percent by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and 10 percent by the State of Berlin. The founding institutions, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC), were independent, member entities within the BIH until 2020. Since 2021 the BIH has been integrated into Charité as the so-called third pillar. The MDC is now the Privileged Partner of the BIH.