‘Immunity Passports’ Could Create a New Category of Privilege
Proof of a prior infection could come with more freedom
In one version of the future, a new type of test that measures antibodies would help restore a sense of normalcy for some people even as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. With the right antibodies, some may be immune to the virus, unable to get sick or spread the virus to others. Widespread testing for these antibodies could pave the way for so-called immunity certificates, which would allow people who have already been exposed to the virus to return to public life.
But the hope may be dashed by significant scientific and ethical concerns. For starters, diagnostic testing is already extremely limited in the United States, to say nothing of the more experimental antibody testing. Experts worry that antibody testing isn’t guaranteed to prove immunity. And if it does, the resulting immunity passports could be used to discriminate against untested people and those who aren’t immune — in the workplace, for example. That could lead people to intentionally expose themselves to Covid-19, banking on the hope that they’ll survive and earn the documentation they need to reenter society.
Despite those concerns, immunity certificates have been proposed as a way to begin reopening the economy in places around the world where daily life has come to a grinding halt because of the new coronavirus. Chile could become the first country to issue immunity certificates to people who have recovered from the virus, and public officials in Germany and Italy are also considering them. In the United States, even the country’s leading coronavirus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the idea of immunity certificates might “have some merit under certain circumstances.”
“There’s a major ethical value in doing this to keep people safe while keeping the economy going,” Sean Aas, senior research scholar and a professor of philosophy at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, tells OneZero. But there are roadblocks to rolling out such certificates.
Immunity passports hinge on people getting a diagnostic test to know if they’re infected with Covid-19, since antibody tests are…