Time works in favour of the creation of COVID-19 immunity passports.
Forgotten amid the fast-growing totals of global COVID-19 infections and deaths is the fast-growing number of people who have recovered from the illness. According to Statista, the number of people globally who have recovered from COVID-19 is now about 27.6 million. That is likely to be an underestimate as many people have overcome COVID-19 without ever feeling any symptoms or taking a test.
The greater availability of COVID-19 tests in many places has shown that the virus has penetrated communities more deeply than even recently realised. The rate of positive tests in France has been climbing rapidly and stood at 11.5% on October 10. In one district of New York, as many as 15% of virus tests are positive. According to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, the proportion of people who survive COVID-19 varies greatly between countries, but in most places does not fall below 96%.
These people, at least in the short term, are immune and so can travel freely without danger to themselves or others – if only we can find the means to validate their immune status.
There is an urgent necessity for international cooperation on testing protocols and certificates to fix the current chaotic situation in which every country looks at itself without considering the bigger picture. It is a national and international aberration to treat all citizens and all populations the same, regardless of their immunological status. Nationally, this can lead to confinements and other restrictions which are unjustified, but costly in economic and social terms. Internationally, travel bans and other highly restrictive moves have brought the tourism and transport industries to their knees.
Yet a better appreciation of immunity can lift some of the constraints which now exist. The issue is being addressed by The World Economic Forum (WEF), the international organization for public-private cooperation which organises annual conferences in Davos.
The WEF has partnered with The Commons Project, a non-profit public trust, to develop the “CommonPass.” The project aims at launching a standard global model to let people to document and present their COVID-19 status. The CommonPass, the WEF says, will let people store health information including COVID-19 test results and vaccination records, and will be presented when getting on a plane or crossing a border. Health screening entry requirements will continue to vary from country to country, but the pass will contain the information needed to ascertain eligibility for being able to enter any particular territory.
I was among the first to argue for the importance of immunity testing and the need for an immunity passport in a series of articles starting in March, published in The Geopolitics, The Brussels Times and The Kootneeti. My proposal is for a digital document which is internationally recognised and which proves the holder has undergone a virological (PCR) test proving the absence of any contamination by the coronavirus and at least one serological test proving the presence of antibodies. This document would be electronically attached to the regular passport used by each traveller to simplify verification and prevent fraud.
The main obstacle is that we don’t know how long immunity, once acquired, will last. Repeated tests over months may be needed to give us a clear idea. It will be an inconvenient process, but, given the economic disaster facing industries such as airlines and tourism, it’s a price worth paying. Any major infrastructure project in the developing world is likely to need bringing in an array of international experts. The only safe way for these projects to safely proceed is with an immunity passport.
To ignore the immunity that is being progressively acquired is to accept huge and avoidable economic damage. It’s possible that immunity can be achieved without the appearance of antibodies (through the appearance of macrophages which can eliminate the virus). But there is no reason to believe that antibodies do not confer at least temporary immunity. Some have suggested that antibodies do not guarantee that a person has become immune to COVID-19. If that is the case, then the very principle of immunisation is thrown into doubt by the pandemic, and a vaccination will be of no use.
That is a remote possibility. The current and pressing reality is that none of the measures taken to try to halt the spread of the pandemic by any country, lockdown or no lockdown, have been successful. Lockdowns, local or national, simply ease the pressure on hospitals for a while. They do not tackle the pandemic: the experience in Europe is that ending lockdowns simply leads to a resurgence of cases, and in turn to calls for lockdowns to be renewed. We must escape this cycle and devise safe methods of moving and working until a vaccination is found.
We are simply unable to contain the spread of the illness until there is a vaccination. What is needed is a set of standardised rules and procedures to allow the world economy to function as fully as possible until the vaccination is validated and can be globally distributed. Once a vaccination is available, people will need to be able to prove their immunological status. There is everything to be gained by equipping them to do so now.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.