Can Immunity Passports Jumpstart the Travel Industry?
Sat, April 17, 2021

Can Immunity Passports Jumpstart the Travel Industry?


Are you aware of the existence of immunity passports? As of this writing, governments are finding out whether certificates, wristbands, or mobile apps could get individuals who have recovered from the virus working and traveling, explained Monica Buchannan Pitrelli of CNBC, a business and financial website.

However, having immunity passport holders travel to places while not wearing masks on airplanes or visiting museums or amusement parks without showing any fear of being re-infected is short-lived. In theory and in principle, immunity passports may be a good alternative to let people travel, but some experts are against the idea.

Travel and Entertainment Amid the Pandemic

The Vacationer, a holiday deals website, conducted a survey involving 583 Americans aged 18 and above on May 17, reported Eric Jones. When asked when the respondents would feel comfortable traveling again regardless if they intend to or not, 19.04% said right now, 38.77% said in three to six months, and 18.01% answered in one year. 7.38% of respondents said in one to two or more years while 16.81 said “not until there’s a vaccine or cure for COVID-19.”

When asked when their next vacation would have been scheduled if the pandemic never happened, 59.86% said May 2020-August 2020, 18.35% said September 2020-December 2020, and 6.17% answered January 2021-April 2021. 6.86% said their vacation would have been scheduled between May 2021 to August 2021 if the pandemic did not happen. 4.12% and 4.63% answered September 2021-December 2021 and January 2022 or later, respectively.

Regarding the question “Has COVID-19 impacted your financial ability to travel or vacation in the near future?", 53.69% said yes and 46.31% said no. At least 58% of respondents earning $75k or less acknowledged that the pandemic has affected their ability to travel or vacation in the near future.

At least 66% of respondents earning less than $25k shared the same sentiment. However, only 26.32% of those making $200k or more said the pandemic has affected their financial ability to travel. Overall, 36.25% of all men said they would be willing to risk the pandemic and travel to a place they love while 27.71% said they would.

When asked if they would risk traveling to a place you love with the virus still spreading in some areas, 68.61% answered no while 31.39% said yes. When asked how soon they would be comfortable traveling internationally, 12.52% said immediately and 31.22% answered in three to six months to monitor a potential second wave of COVID-19. 27.96% and 28.30% of respondents said they would feel comfortable traveling to other countries in one year or the next two years or more, respectively.  



What Is An Immunity Passport?

An immunity passport is a digital or paper certificate or card that shows that the passport holder has had (and healed from) COVID-19, said Katherine LaGrave of AFAR, a travel magazine and guide. This is only at a basic level considering that there is no one size fits all immunity passport. Countries and officials call them “immunity certificates,” “licenses,” and “COVID passes.” However, the term “release certificates” is becoming more popular after the World Health Organization warned states about using the word “immunity.”



What Does An Immunity Passport Do?

They use antibody testing to establish antibodies specific to the virus, indicating that the individual has managed to overcome COVID-19, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the US’s public health institute. In practical settings, an immunity passport’s function depends on the country and company.

For example, in early May, London-based firm Onfido submitted a proposal to the British government and said they are currently in the “brainstorming” stage. Per the proposal, the individual would use an app to take a picture of their face and a government-approved ID, stated Vincent Manancourt of Politico, an American political journalism company.

The photos would be matched with information regarding an antibody and antigen test. When the individual arrives at a checkpoint, a QR code would be generated from the app, which would be based on the person’s data. This would show the receptionist or border patrol agent whether the person could proceed or not.

Are There Any Concerns Surrounding the Use of Immunity Passports?

Immunity passports are perfect for anyone who wants to get back on track with life. But individuals need to consider its impacts on society such as one sector being allowed to move, travel, congregate, and work freely while others cannot.

According to an article by Alexandra L. Phelan of medical journal The Lancet, vulnerable populations— particularly those who cannot go to work for extended periods of time— might be more inclined to “seek out infections.” This could widen racial and gender inequities, as well as infection rates. Immunity passports or any document showing proof of immunity could become a condition for employment. Possibly, a black market for producing bogus immunity documents might be established as a workaround for said condition.  

Other than concerns related to discrimination, Phelan emphasized the difference between the WHO’s Carte Jaune or Yellow Cards— which show proof of vaccinations— and immunity passports. She said, “Vaccination certificates incentivise individuals to obtain vaccination against the virus, which is a social good. By contrast, immunity passports incentivise infection.”  

Similar situations occurred in the US in the 19th century. For instance, people who had not been exposed to the infection were denied employment and housing during yellow fever outbreaks. Dr. Sharona Hoffman, a bioethics professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, noted that city residents tried to prove that they had yellow fever to get hired.

She added, “People sought exposure and hoped to live through it to be deemed acclimated and have work opportunities.” However, many of them died after being exposed to yellow fever. Hoffman also stressed that there may be populations who may not have access to antibody tests or the financial capacity to pay for such procedures if immunity passports are issued. She hoped for a program that would make these tests accessible and free for individuals who do not have health insurance.



What Is A Better Alternative to Immunity Passports?

Digital “health passports” that could contain recent negative COVID-19 test results, positive antibody test results and eventually, proof of vaccination may be a better document for travelers. However, health passports could only alleviate some but not all problems present in immunity passports. Health passport programs could work through privacy considerations and international cooperation.

Immunity passports may appear helpful, but they could also exacerbate societal inequities such as being denied of employment unless a person would show proof of infection. Health passports may be a travel document, as it could contain proof of vaccination and other important information.