Governments are now thinking of introducing ‘immunity passports’ to those who have recovered and tested positive for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in an effort to reverse the catastrophic economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea is being discussed in many countries, including the US, Germany and the UK.
Immunity passport holders are presumed to have immunity to the virus. Authorities would lift restrictions on these passport holders and allow them to return to work, socialise and travel.
China has brought in digital QR codes to limit the movement of people. Chile plans to issue ‘medical release certificates’ with three months’ validity to people who have recovered from the disease.
Experts fear that such passports increase discrimination instead of protecting public health, besides challenging individual freedom.
They fear that labelling people on the basis of their COVID-19 status would create societal stratification.
Moreover, researchers are yet to figure out whether everyone produces enough antibodies to guarantee future protection — what the safe level might be — and how long immunity might last.
The WHO has already cautioned against issuing immunity passports because their accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Currently, there is no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection, the agency stated.
Besides, currently available serological tests are not accurate and are unreliable to detect antibodies.
It is also difficult to test everyone in a country to ascertain their immunity status. A minimum of two tests are required per person because anyone who tested negative might later become infected and would need to be retested for issuing a certificate.
Besides the above gaps in scientific knowledge and practical challenges, immunity passports also pose challenges related to equality under the law.
Movement control and electronic documentation of records are among other ethical issues infringing on the privacy of individuals.
Experts also fear that monitoring and policing for COVID-19 immunity could also be used with ulterior motives.