A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerated efforts to produce a vaccine have now yielded results. Vaccines are now being distributed in many countries and mass vaccination drives are being ramped up in the hope of finally ending this health crisis. To account for the easing of lockdown measures that is bound to follow, the idea of immunity passports is now being passed around. Proponents say it is a good way to jumpstart international travel and tourism, and eventually our normal way of life.
The idea is simple: have people carry a digital or physical proof that they have been infected with an infectious disease in the past and might therefore carry antibodies that make them immune, or that they have been immunized against such a disease. It would usually contain the identification details of the carrier and, where applicable, their vaccine-related information.
An immunity passport may take many forms, depending on the implementing country. It can be a smartphone app, a wristband, a physical or digital ID card, or a paper certificate. Denmark, for instance, plans to develop a digital passport its citizens can use to view or show, through an official website, the official confirmation that they have already gone through vaccination. The certificate may be downloaded to a mobile phone. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is also testing out its immunity passports in the form of a downloadable app (for free).
Immunity passports are not new. Prior to the current pandemic, some countries were already requiring travelers to have a International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (sometimes called yellow card) in relation to specific diseases. For example, people traveling to certain African countries have been asked to show their yellow card to prove they’ve been inoculated against yellow fever.
Here in the Philippines, several bills eyeing the implementation of an immunity passport program have already been filed this past few weeks. They all aim to provide persons who have received a COVID-19 vaccine certain benefits such as international or domestic travel, exemption from local checkpoints and quarantines, as well as access to business establishments.
However, while they appear to be a panacea that’s key to reviving the global economy, immunity passports also carry a lot of baggage and pose serious questions. This early, experts, including those from the Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization Committee (WHO), have already raised their concerns. They note immunity passports can be a gateway to unwarranted privacy intrusions, data breaches, social exclusion, and inequality.
These documents are a data protection concern because they involve people’s health data and issues relating to proportionality and transparency are already coming to light. Among the local bills, for instance, some require the collection of personal data (i.e. gender, name, signature and license number of the physician or nurse who administered the vaccine) that seem completely unnecessary if the sole purpose of the passport is to prove an individual’s vaccination. The potential for mission creep is also high. There is always the risk that the government will abuse the system and utilize it for surveillance purposes, profiling, and other activities.
Another problem is the reliability and integrity of the system. An immunity passport requires a centralized database. Naturally, there is always a possibility that it will be prone to inaccuracies. Last year, we’ve already had a preview of this problem with the alarming errors observed in the Department of Health’s COVID-19 data. Can we be sure that kind of incident won’t happen to a government-managed immunity passport system? We know too, of course, that it’s not always about human error. Digital glitches are also possible. Both scenarios are critical because the stakes are higher with immunity passports. People could be deprived of their rights if the system does not reflect their correct data. In the past, people have been included in no-fly lists due to computer errors.
Security is also a key issue. One giant database will be a very attractive target for cybercriminals. Some could find ways to access or copy the system and use it to illegally produce immunity passports. We could be seeing the rise of a black market for counterfeit passports, inevitably diminishing public trust in the system. It would also be unreasonable or at least risky to ask people to always physically carry their sensitive health data as it would be prone to theft or loss. To succeed, the government should be able to develop a system that can pass international standards, one that is also compatible with other systems. Health authorities will have to find a way to accurately document vaccinations and share data safely. It will take time to implement and turn all of these into a system that local and international groups will be willing to trust.
Social exclusion and discrimination are also very real problems that, although unintended, could result from the use of immunity passports. Once we start categorizing people based on their health status and access to healthcare, it opens up the possibility that some populations will be excluded and/or discriminated upon simply because they have no easy access to vaccines. Immunity passports can become de facto entry documents people will be made to produce in order to access basic goods and services. It may prevent others from participating in school, work, or leisure activities, furthering the gap between social groups. In other words, immunity passports can amplify social inequalities, especially given the limited supply of vaccines and the uncertainty surrounding their equitable distribution.
Ironically, the biggest issue about immunity passports may be the vaccines themselves. Today, there are still fundamental unknowns in terms of their effectiveness. It is remains unclear if they can absolutely prevent viral transmission, and, if they can, how long that protection will actually last. Both go right into the value of these passports.
What this means is that in the end, it may very well be the case that immunity passports will only serve as proof of inoculation, but not necessarily immunity from the disease or the impossibility of one spreading the same. This completely defeats its purpose.
So where do we then situate ourselves and our interest in immunity passports? It is difficult to say.
We are all trying to understand the effectiveness and overall impact of the vaccines. Even our basic understanding of the COVID-19 virus is still a work in progress. Immunity passports have laudable goals, but in order for us to meet them, we will all have to reach first some type of consensus as regards the effectiveness of vaccines. For now, it’s still premature to claim that immunity passports are the key to the socio-economic challenges we are facing due to the pandemic.
All proposals to implement such a system must go through a very thorough and comprehensive vetting process. It should observe a proper balance between public health, economic considerations, and people’s fundamental rights. Addressing the points raised here will work towards that objective. In the meantime, the government must continue (and improve even) its initiatives to provide our health community with adequate resources, fair compensation, and overall protection for our health workers. So far, the resolve and sacrifices made by this community has been the only certain and proven measure we’ve had in fighting against this deadly pandemic. Caring for them is our way of giving them immunity passports.
This article first appeared on GMA News Online on Feb. 15, 2021 3:30 pm.