What Is A COVID-19 Immunity Passport?

By Ellen Kershner on May 6 2020 in Society

Many governments are considering using immunity passports after social distancing practices have been eased. Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
Many governments are considering using immunity passports after social distancing practices have been eased. Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
  • governments around the world are looking for ways to emerge from the restrictive social distancing practices in effect.
  • These physical or digital documents are proposed as a way to certify individuals who have been infected and are supposedly immune to the virus
  • Though many countries have been testing for antibodies, most of the tests are not designed to see if humans are immune to secondary infections.
  • Many COVID-19 tests have appeared in the marketplace, and not all of them are accurate.

With a possible COVID-19 vaccine still many months away, governments around the world are looking for ways to emerge from the restrictive social distancing practices in effect. Economic pressures are also being felt across the globe. One idea for possible relief that is catching on in countries like Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany is immunity passports.

These physical or digital documents are proposed as a way to certify individuals who have been infected and are supposedly immune to the virus, including people who have detectable antibodies to the SARS-CoV. Immunity passports would make their owners exempt from physical restrictions and could allow them to return to school, work, and their regular routines.

The World Health Organization (WHO)’s Opinion

WHO has already published guidelines for the next phase of the coronavirus response, and it includes changes to public health and social measures. It also includes a mention of immunity passports. WHO pointed out that there is no real evidence showing that people who recover from the virus are protected from becoming infected again.

Though many countries have been testing for antibodies, most of the tests are not designed to see if humans are immune to secondary infections. At this point, WHO feels that the evidence does not support the effectiveness of antibody immunity. The accuracy of immunity passports cannot be guaranteed; people who believe they are immune to second infections might ignore public health safety measures, increasing the chances of continued transmissions.

WHO also opined that these passports could impose artificial restrictions on which people can participate in certain activities, like social events, work, and travel. This could be especially detrimental for those who cannot afford to stay home and not work.

FDA Testing

Many COVID-19 tests have appeared in the marketplace, and not all of them are accurate. In mid-April, the Food and Drug Administration announced that they would be working in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the quality of all these tests. One test manufactured by the company Cellex claims to be accurate, and is FDA-approved. Some critics still question this test’s accuracy, though.

An Educated Opinion

Immunity passports would allow governments to end social distancing measures, but some scientists are critical of the effectiveness of these passports. Photo by Mateusz Glogowski on Unsplash

Scientficamerican.com posted a blog that advised caution against immunity passports and advocated for better testing methodologies. The authors recommended random population testing in conjunction with contact tracing to provide estimates of viral spread. The piece also emphasized the importance of testing people who are ill, and those at high exposure risk for infection. Although antibody testing could provide answers, in its current state it does not offer a solution. The authors, therefore, theorized that a positive antibody test does not equal true immunity to COVID-19. In their opinion, doing so is medically wrong, and it could also open up a whole new world of civil liberties issues.

Calling the immunity passport policy “shortsighted,” the authors pushed for redirecting efforts towards active infection testing, contact tracing, physical distancing, testing the “6,000-plus drugs approved for human use,” and obtaining needed supplies like ventilators, masks, and personal protective equipment.

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