A number of countries have decided to introduce COVID-19 ‘immunity passports’ in recent times, and many more might be tempted to do the same.
An ‘immunity passport’ is a certification that the holder has had the coronavirus, has built up antibodies, and is less likely to contract it again, which could allow them to enter places that those people without one are barred from.
Before we continue it’s important to note that the virus has not been around long enough for scientists to absolutely confirm that if you’ve had it, you’re immune to it indefinitely. Long-term monitoring of patients who have contracted and recovered from the virus is the only way to know for sure, and that could take up to a year.
Furthermore, as the BBC points out, for every person testing positive for antibodies, two were found to have specific T-cells which identify and destroy infected cells, but it is not yet clear whether this protects just the individual, or can stop them from passing it on to others.
BBC also looked into ‘immunity passports’ and how they could affect society if they become more common.
Estonia is currently building an immunity passport system. Apps are also being developed to display antibody and potentially immunity status, although a number of US hotels are not accepting ‘immunity passports’ via an app.
Robert West, professor of health, psychology and behavioural science at University College London (UCL), fears a “divisive society”.
“You can imagine a situation where if you can get hold of some sort of certification, it will open up doors for you that wouldn’t be open to people who can’t have that certification.
“It could create a multi-tier society and increase levels of discrimination and inequity.” Prof West also warns that the entire premise of immunity might be on shaky ground.
“It wouldn’t be based on solid scientific foundation. It would be based on a probability that you may or may not be susceptible [to coronavirus] yourself or may or may not be in a position to pass the virus onto other people.
There’s also the possibility that businesses could start favouring people with ‘immunity passports’ over those who don’t have them. Take for example an airline, which could use the fact that all staff carry these passports as a way to set themselves apart from competitors.
Even more concerning is that job seekers, or others barred from certain parts of society, might be tempted to infect themselves with a potentially deadly disease to get hold of one of these passports.
The commercial sector aside, the passports could have social implications, creating an ‘immune elite’ who close themselves off from others or use their antibody status to ‘prove’ that they’re immune.
In New York, people are using antibody tests – showing that they have been exposed to the virus and have recovered – as a way of suggesting they are safe to date.
They are photographing positive test results to use as a kind of improvised “Covid-immunity passport”.
Perhaps that photo can replace the shirtless ones on Tinder, or the ones where you’re holding a puppy.
It’s feared that people might be tempted to create fake antibody test results to gain access to activities such as dating and physical intimacy, or as mentioned earlier, put themselves in harm’s way by exposing themselves to the virus.
In this sense, ‘immunity passports’ could be a slippery slope to social chaos across all sectors.
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