What Are “Immunity Passports” & Why Are Officials Against Implementing Them?

Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep businesses around the world boarded up and people in a state of lockdown in their homes, it’s becoming clearer that patience is running thin for many. Restless people in states around the U.S., notably Michigan and Georgia, have begun taking to the streets to publicly protest safety measures like quarantining and businesses being closed. According to experts, Georgia is prematurely opening up businesses around the state, while beaches in parts of Florida are also moving to lift restrictions. Despite health officials warning of a second wave of the virus hitting the U.S. as a result of these actions, it seems that people are eager to return to normal life now more than ever.
Global talks of easing lockdown restrictions are becoming louder, too. Belgium, who has had more than 45,000 positive cases of the coronavirus and is nearing 7,000 deaths, will open business and slowly lift their lockdown orders beginning on May 11. Italy, with over 197,500 positive cases and a staggering 26,644 deaths, is considering relaxing their lockdown measures on May 4 as their number of new death cases wind down. Aside from flattening the curve, the movement to reopen is thanks in part to some antibody testing that's causing widespread speculation. Antibody tests, which are being doled out to survivors of coronavirus, are being investigated to determine if those who underwent COVID-19 have developed any levels of immunity to it, which would allow them to operate freely and reenter society without risk.
As such, an “immunity passport,” also called a “risk-free certificate,” has been discussed in countries like Chile as an option for people who have recovered from COVID-19 so that they could travel around and attend work. The immunity passport would, more or less, be a symbol that the holder at one point was infected with the virus and successfully recovered, meaning that they possessed antibodies within them and were unlikely to be infected again.
However, The World Health Organization is currently rejecting the idea that an immunity passport could work on a large scale. In a briefing called “‘Immunity passports’ in the context of COVID-19” published by WHO on Friday, the organization stated that “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.” They went on to explain that stronger lab tests are needed to determine whether or not adequate antibodies even exist within the formerly infected, confirming that “Laboratory tests that detect antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 [what causes COVID-19 in the body] in people, including rapid immunodiagnostic tests, need further validation to determine their accuracy and reliability.”
But even an official statement from WHO hasn’t stopped the idea of immunity passports from floating around. Professor Marc Van Ranst, who works as a member of Belgium’s Risk Assessment Group and Scientific Committee on the Coronavirus, discussed possibilities of the outcome of assigning immunity passports with the BBC, stating that “[Immunity passports] will lead to forgeries, that will lead to people wilfully infecting themselves to the virus. This is just not a good idea. It is an extremely bad idea."
While there is no telling at the moment what could come out of immunity passports becoming a more widespread practice, the idea that antibodies could completely protect someone from getting sick again, WHO says, can cause caution in countries to become lax and the virus to spread because of that. “The use of such certificates may therefore increase the risks of continued transmission,” they also say, confirming their feelings on the passports.
And while the immunity passports currently don’t exist en masse, their infiltration would go against the slow and steady reopening of society that many health and governmental officials are urging. “At this point in the pandemic, there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate,” WHO ends their briefing.

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