Across the world, countries are considering the use of ‘immunity passports. These are handed out to those who have recovered from COVID-19 for the purpose of travel. The passports would link a person’s identity to a coronavirus antibody test result, so they can share this immune status with third parties like employers, airports or restaurants. Immunity passports are also known as ‘risk-free certificates.’ According to the World Health Organisation, use of such certificates could lead to the risk of continued transmission.
What is an immunity passport?
“An immunity passport is a presentable proof of immunity to Covid-19,” said Husayn Kassai, co-founder and CEO of Onfido, a London-based technology company specialising in facial biometric certification. “It is designed to help an individual prove that they have been tested and that their test result belongs to them, but without having to share any personal information.”
The idea is that a passport would certify that you have had coronavirus and will not carry or contract the disease again, opening up a way out of lockdown restrictions for the holder.
Immunity passports are currently mainly studied to support medical staff in front line so that they can continue to function safely with a lower risk of hospital outbreak.
It will allow users to establish a digital identity by uploading an official document (such as a passport or driver’s licence) along with a selfie taken on their phone, which would be verified using AI technology. The identification will then be combined with a national health service certificate of immunity. The result is a code on your phone which can be checked for entry into offices , public buildings or even airports.
Travel restoration is vital to global economic recovery. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, almost USD 9 trillion of tourism added to global GDP and represented 330 million jobs in 2019—around one in ten jobs worldwide. However, governments would understandably need evidence for their journeys that people don’t carry Covid-19 with them. The submission of checked proof of immunity can become a prerequisite for passengers to take a flight, similar to a passport or visa, before the airlines.
The first and serious challenge is mainly due to the lack of scientific knowledge about Covid-19. There is still no clear idea exactly on the accuracy of antibody tests, and when antibodies are detected, how long they remain in someone’s body.
Governments and healthcare practitioners need effective serology tests, which can reliably recognise antibodies in the bloodstream of an individual, which the World Health Organization says is not currently feasible, for an immunity passport to be in effect. An Emirates scheme for the screening of airline passengers for Covid-19 antibodies using fast immunodiagnostic tests was withdrawn after only 30% of the findings were confirmed to be correct. False results could lead to immunity even though people have never contracted the virus.
There is also raising concern as to how long people infected with Covid-19 remain resistant to the disease. Some evidence indicates that while antibodies can be identified in patients who recover for at least three months from a serious case of Covid-19, an increasing number of studies tend to show a rapid decrease in milder circumstances, after about three months.
If or when a Covid-19 vaccine is established in future, a similar vaccination certification scheme can be enforced to permit travel similarly to that used for yellow fever.