This country will be the first to issue ‘immunity passports’; would it work in the U.S.?

Chile’s government said on April 21 that it plans to launch the world’s first “immunity passports,” according to the Washington Post. These passports would allow citizens who have recovered from COVID-19 to return to work, and they would be exempt from quarantines.  

While some support this effort to get Chile on track to normalcy, critics warn that it’s too soon because scientists don’t know enough about the virus. The World Health Organization released a scientific brief of April 24 that cautioned against immunity passports. 

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

The brief said no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to the virus gives immunity to subsequent infections. 

“At this point in the pandemic, there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate,'” the brief said. “People who assume that they are immune to a second infection because they have received a positive test result may ignore public health advice. The use of such certificates may, therefore, increase the risks of continued transmission.” 

More than 4,600 Chileans are eligible for an immunity passport, according to Paula Daza, the undersecretary in the Chilean Health Ministry. Previously untested citizens for COVID-19 can apply to be tested for the presence of antibodies. 

Antibody testing has already proven to be unreliable since 2% of patients in South Korea tested positive after they appeared to have recovered. Officials said the relapse could happen for several reasons: a reactivation of remaining viruses in the patients’ systems, insufficient immunity against the virus, or a weakened immune system after recovery. 

The immunity passports also bring up ethical concerns. Healthy individuals could purposely get themselves infected with the virus, in hopes that they would recover and receive the card. Businesses could discriminate against those without an immunity passport, which would make it more difficult for those without access to healthcare and testing to maintain a job. 

Still, Chile plans to move ahead with its plans for an immunity passport. 

The United States, along with Germany, Italy, and Britain, is also considering implementing its own immunity passport. But infectious diseases chief Anthony S. Fauci has warned the U.S. should be cautious until more is known about the reliability of antibody testing. 

Sources: Washington Post, NPR, World Health Organization, Reuters, U.S. News and World Report

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