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What Is an Immunity Passport—and Do I Need One to Travel?

By Katherine LaGrave

May 18, 2020

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Airlines have toyed with the idea of asking passengers to provide “immunity passports.”

Photo by Bohbeh/Shutterstock

Airlines have toyed with the idea of asking passengers to provide “immunity passports.”

As destinations open their borders and travel slowly resumes, the health of visitors and citizens in the age of coronavirus remains a concern.

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In mid-April, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said on a call with investors that the airline was considering requiring travelers to show a certificate of good health, suggesting “immunity passports” would soon become ubiquitous. He may not be wrong.

At present, airlines like Emirates are performing temperature checks prior to letting passengers on airplanes, and visitors to most countries are expected to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. But airlines and destinations know these aren’t long-term solutions: Some COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic, and no one goes to Vienna just to see it from their hotel window, after all. 

Already, a number of governments—the U.S. and U.K. included—are in talks to develop immunity passports. But what exactly is one, and how does it work? Better yet, how do you get one? Let’s dive in.

What is an immunity passport?

There is no one-size-fits-all immunity passport. At a basic level, “immunity passport” refers to a digital or paper certificate or card that allows people to show that they’ve had (and healed from) the virus. Countries and officials have also been calling them “immunity certificates,” “licenses,” and “COVID passes”; the phrase “release certificates” is also starting to gain popularity, after the World Health Organization warned countries about using the word “immunity.” (More on that later.) 

How does an immunity passport work?

Immunity passports use antibody testing to establish antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2, which indicate the subject has fended off the coronavirus, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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On a practical level, just how a “passport” works depends on the company and country. One company, London-based Onfido, submitted a proposal to the U.K. government in early May, and says they are now in the “brainstorming” state. Under Onfido’s proposal, reports Politico, you would use an app to take a photo of your face and a government-approved I.D. This would then be matched with information about an antibody and antigen test. At checkpoints, the app would generate a QR code based on your data, showing the gate-keeper (a receptionist or border patrol agent, say) whether or not you are clear to proceed. 

Which countries or places require them?

In Chile, the government is slated to start issuing certificates to those who have finished a mandatory quarantine after testing positive for coronavirus. Despite earlier phrasing, health officials note they will no longer “make any pronouncement with respect to immunity,” reports Reuters.

Since midway through the coronavirus crisis, China has been having the majority of its citizens use a color-based system with QR codes to show health status: a green QR code means people can travel within their immediate province, yellow suggests the person may have come in contact with someone infected, and red is for those diagnosed with the virus, or who are suspected to have it. The system—called the “Alipay Health Code”—also appears to share that information with police, leading to concerns about privacy and surveillance, according to the New York Times

Other countries—including Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland—are also considering immunity passports. 

When Will We Travel Abroad Again?

How do I get an immunity passport?

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Immunity passports rely on antibody testing, which is not yet widely available. If you’re planning on traveling sometime soon, consult this list of country-specific rules and see if the destination country has implemented any such systems.

What are the benefits of immunity passports?

Economies are slowly restarting, and immunity passports would allow some people to return to work—or, even, to take “riskier” jobs, like those in the transportation and service industries. They could also allow some people to travel, with restrictions.

What are the concerns about immunity passports?

Immunity passports have raised red flags from those in the medical community. The idea of an immunity “certificate” or “passport” has come under fire from the World Health Organization, which issued a brief in April saying that there is currently not enough evidence to suggest that people who have had (and healed from) COVID-19 are immune. The prevalence of such passports could also mean more people out and about: “People who assume that they are immune to a second infection because they have received a positive test result may ignore public health advice,” warns WHO. “The use of such certificates may therefore increase the risks of continued transmission.” 

Even if people who recovered from COVID-19 were immune, there’s no answer as to how long that immunity would last. Antibodies against the SARS coronavirus only lasted two years, point out writers in a joint editorial for Scientific American, and they sometimes even made the disease worse.

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By implementing such a system, some social scientists also fear that countries would be creating an odd sort of reward—that people would willingly catch the virus and recover, so that they could once again “rejoin” society. As with regular passports, that system could also see an influx of fake, stolen, and hacked passports, Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, told Wired.

For others, the biggest red flag may be around the ethics of it all: In systems that espouse equality, what would our world look like if people were so clearly split into immune and not-immune groups? In Germany, government officials have asked the German Ethics Council to research just that, with health minister Jens Spahn noting, “The question of what it means for society when some people are hit by restrictions and others are not, that touches on the foundations of how society functions together.” 

>> Next: Iceland Is Reopening to International Travelers in June

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