Complex Made Simple

Prepare to carry a new document on your travels: An “Immunity Passport”

Survivors of the novel coronavirus could hold immunity passports, which would identify them as low-risk individuals when travelling, entering buildings and complying with screening procedures.

Many ID startups have rose to the occasion, with proposed immunity passport solutions However, the current COVID-19 antibody test employed to detect recovered individuals is not foolproof In fact, given that there have been cases of survivors recontracting the virus, immunity passports could create a false sense of security

With coronavirus cases nearing an unsettling 5 million figure (4,924,016 currently), and deaths tallying over 320,000, the grim statistics sometimes make it easy to forget that quite a significant number of people have survived this deadly pandemic: 1,919,159 as of this writing, or 86% of resolved cases (2,239,607). 

With stringent measures governing the movement and treatment of those sick with the virus, how do we go about handling and identifying the survivors during everyday life – at mall entrances, airport checkpoints, and elsewhere? 

ID startups are rushing to provide the answer: immunity passports. 

A proof of survival

Image: YotiMuch like a passport or any other form of identification, immunity passports will bring together an individual’s identification information with their COVID-19 test results. Essentially, this new form of ID is meant to identify survivors of the virus to ease their travels and hopefully help restart the economy.

According to Business Insider (BI), “Most solutions rely on some combination of facial recognition, ID documents like passports or driving licences, and the distribution of unique QR codes.”

“With all three elements in place, ID firms such as Yoti, Onfido and IDnow – all of which have held talks with the UK government – say their software will allow users to reliably provide their COVID-19 test results on the spot.”

COVID-19 survivors are generally identified through an antibody test, which according to Mayo Clinic is done after full recovery from COVID-19. 

“A health care professional takes a blood sample, usually by drawing blood from a vein in the arm,” the Clinic’s site explains. “Then the sample is tested to determine whether you’ve developed antibodies against the virus.”

“If test results show that you have antibodies, it indicates that you were likely infected with COVID-19 at some time in the past. It may also mean that you have some immunity.”

This would be noted on your immunity passport, identifying you as a survivor of the virus. These individuals would theoretically be the best candidates to rely on to restart the economy, because they would not be able to contract the virus or infect others as asymptomatic hosts, as we’ve seen happen on multiple occasions. 

Again, theoretically. 

COVID-19 immunity has not been confirmed 

Why theoretically? That’s because there is a lot we don’t know about the virus, and antibody testing is not entirely reliable, as the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes

“Laboratory tests that detect antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in people, including rapid immunodiagnostic tests, need further validation to determine their accuracy and reliability”

Additionally, there is major risk that an “immunity passport” will instil a false sense of security in countries, which the WHO has also warned against, especially given that some reported survivors, such as in China, were stated to have contracted the virus again despite having made a full recovery.

“There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” the WHO emphasizes. 

So while we’d like to think that survivors carrying immunity passports are free to resume their normal lives, without the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, officials are advising against it. For governments that are itching to reopen in light of stifled economies and a looming recession, this might be the next best alternative to a vaccine. 

“The appeal is obvious for employers. They would have no outbreak in their workplace, and for the more public facing businesses, it can be a selling point. ‘Our workers are immune, you can come to our restaurant,‘” Carmel Shachar, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, told Politico

John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow Airport, was also onboard with the idea of immunity passports, telling Sky News that this proposed document would allow people who have already had COVID-19 to travel more freely throught their airport. However, he said that there should be a universal system set up “so that we know your health passport is accepted in the country you’re going to.”

The business of immunity passports 

For ID startups like Yoti, Onfido and IDnow, this is a prime business opportunity. 

According to BI, “the global ID verification market was already set to be worth close to $13 billion by 2024, but calls for immunity passports or similar solutions around the world could boost that figure.”

One of these companies, San Francisco-based Onfido, raised $100 million in Series D funding last month. 

San Francisco-based Onfido, raised $100 million in Series D funding last month. Image: Onfido

Onfido’s immunity passports would pivot around facial recognition to avoid smartphone workarounds and other exploits, and “would be predicated on widespread disbursement of at-home testing kits,” news site Axios explains.

As for UK-based startup Yoti, they understand the fallibility of current anti-body tests, which is why they have gone about their ID tech in a different way.

“Our discussions with the goverment focused more on being able to tell when an individual had most recently been tested, for example, if you had negative results confirmed a day or two ago, rather than proving you’re absolutely immune,” Yoti CEO Robin Tombs told BI. 

Their immunity passports are essentially a digital wallet stored on users’ phones, allowing people to carry recent COVID-19 test results in their pocket.

As for Germany-based IDNow, it is looking into collaborating with other ID firms on ways to collaborate on a shared system across borders. Yoti has engaged in similar steps too. After all, if an immunity passport is instated as standard across countries, there needs to be a unified, or at least compatible, format of this ID, as the Heathrow boss highlighted.