As COVID-19 cases begin to slow and travelers are looking to restart traveling, the question remains — how will the world operate now that COVID-19 is here to stay? Many countries require either a PCR or rapid test to check if someone has an active case of COVID-19. Some options, like requiring a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, may make it difficult for many people to be able to start traveling again — but what other options exist?
A few countries have started considering issuing “immunity passports” or some kind of health certificate indicating a person has immunity to COVID-19 — whether they have received a vaccine or recovered from COVID-19. But how reliable would these immunity passports be, and how would you even get one?
We’ll explore what exactly these immunity passports are, how countries might use them for residents and visitors to cross their borders, and if they might the key to getting travel back soon.
What Is an Immunity Passport?
An “immunity passport” assumes that once you’ve been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and makes a full recovery, you will have immunity that will protect you from getting the disease again for a certain amount of time. As the vaccine becomes more widely available, this document could also show that you’ve been successfully vaccinated for COVID-19.
Theoretically, this means that you would not be able to pass the virus to anyone else and you would be free to move around in public without worry. Unfortunately, what we don’t know for certain with COVID-19 is whether people do have immunity once they’ve recovered.
The good news is that the initial vaccination efficacy rates have proved to be as high as 95%, but we still don’t know how long immunity might last. This is further emphasized by the fact that boosters are being strongly encouraged by the CDC if it has been more than 6 months since your primary COVID vaccination.
Hot Tip: For a detailed look at how antibody testing works, check out this article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
A coronavirus test, or a diagnostic test, looks for signs of active virus. It’s simpler and faster than an antibody test but only tells you if you have the virus in your body at the moment when you’re tested.
An antibody test shows that you had the virus at some point in the past. It could be gone, or you could still be contagious.
How Might an Immunity Passport Help With COVID-19?
The idea of immunity passports is essentially either testing for antibodies OR showing proof of vaccination. To be able to receive an immunity passport, you would either need to know if your body has the antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 (the strain of the virus that causes COVID-19) present because you previously fought off the coronavirus or because you have received a vaccination.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is providing a vaccination card that tells you key facts about your inoculation, including the date you received the vaccine and the type you received. Either this card (or some electronic version of this card) could help with this.
People who have an immunity passport could safely return to work and travel because they have a low chance of getting sick again. As enough tests become available and enough people get clearance, business and activity could slowly return to normal.
Vaccines and tests are becoming widely available, but with the varying efficacy of different vaccines, how would we track this? And what about booster shots?
Who Would Need an Immunity Passport?
Between 25% to 50% of people who become infected with COVID-19 may never develop symptoms, and some may become only mildly ill. Others may have known they were sick, but could not get tested. This means that it is important for every individual to be tested for antibodies to COVID-19 or receive the vaccination.
This leads to some ethical issues. We already see that many countries do not have the same access to the vaccine that we have here in the U.S. Unfortunately, as Bloomberg points out, “Countries and regions with the highest incomes are getting vaccinated more than 30 times faster than those with the lowest.”
Here in the U.S., every American over the age of 5 is eligible for the vaccine (and even booster depending on how long it’s been since you’ve received your last dose.
However, it’s important to remember that there may still be medical reasons that might prevent someone from even being able to get a vaccine.
This could essentially create 2 different classes of people: those who are permitted to reenter society (to work, take public transit, travel, go to church, etc.), and those who aren’t.
Providing Evidence To Obtain an Immunity Passport
To show that you have immunity from COVID-19, you’ll either need to be tested for antibodies to ensure you’ve recovered from COVID-19 or you’ll need to provide evidence that you are fully vaccinated.
Testing for Immunity Passports
To be tested for immunity, your blood will need to be tested through something like a finger prick. Doctors will use your blood to test for 2 kinds of antibodies linked to COVID-19. Antibodies usually stay in your blood long after the infection goes away, but we don’t know how long that is for COVID-19 specifically.
On May 9, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the emergency use of the first antibody test to Abbott Laboratories. The tests can indicate whether a person has had COVID-19 (either asymptomatic or recovered).
Since then, many companies have been approved to distribute antibody tests and they have been made widely available (either for free or at minimal cost) at local clinics and through your healthcare provider.
Providing Evidence of Vaccination
Since each country is in charge of administering its own COVID-19 vaccines, this means that there is no standard in place in terms of what the key elements of a certificate would include. Each physical card will need to be uploaded to a digital app or website to confirm that it 1) aligns with standards, and 2) is valid (aka not a fake).
From there, the World Health Organization (WHO), along with many other companies, is developing examples of a digital version of what a health vaccination certificate would need to look like for COVID-19. Until a standardized form is settled upon, determining what is considered an acceptable vaccination record will come from each individual country.
How Would You Use an Immunity Passport?
Digital health passes have been developed to help facilitate the management and verification of testing and vaccination requirements between various governments, airlines, laboratories, and travelers by creating a global registry of requirements and allowing for standardization of testing results.
A federal policy effective December 6, 2021, requires all arriving international passengers, regardless of vaccination status, to get a test and provide negative results for a current COVID-19 infection 1 day before departure. Foreign visitors must be fully vaccinated to travel to the U.S. in addition to the 1-day test requirement. Limited entry exceptions, including children under 18 years of age, may apply.
Several apps are available that allow passengers to upload their test results and vaccine status in a safe and protected manner, but physical proof of vaccination and/or test results can also be provided when checking in at the airport.
Nearly 60 airlines utilize IATA Travel Pass (iOS, Android), including Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates, allowing travelers to store their COVID-19 test results in a digital wallet solution to share with airlines and immigration. The app also recognizes the EU and U.K. digital COVID-19 certificates (detailed in the next sections).
A few airlines, including American Airlines, British Airways, Japan Airlines, and Alaska Airlines, as well as Viking Cruises, use the digital health passport app VeriFLY (iOS, Android) to streamline COVID-19 test results. Using the app, travelers can select a destination, upload negative test results, and receive a QR code to show upon check-in at the airport.
United also has its own Travel-Ready Center where passengers can upload their vaccine and testing documents, as well as see what destination requirements are needed. This is in place on a route-specific basis for destinations that are requiring evidence of vaccination (in addition or in lieu of testing).
There are multiple other digital apps that are being used. For example, an internationally-accepted digital certificate developed by The Commons Project is currently being used by all 3 major U.S. airline alliances to check for vaccination status based on routes.
The European Union (EU) has implemented the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which includes proof of vaccination for Schengen visa application and visa-free entry if you are traveling in the EU. You will need to provide proof of a vaccine, proof of a negative COVID-19 test, or proof you contracted the virus and have since recovered. You will then be issued a unique QR code with a digital signature.
This allows citizens of EU Member States to be able to move freely around their own country and travel within the EU. This covers the EU as well as non-EU Member States such as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland (but not the United Kingdom).
Using certificates to signify people who have been sick with the COVID-19 virus has also been popular in the U.K. as authorities look for ways out of socially and economically devastating lockdowns.
While plans for a national vaccine passport were dropped in 2021, there are currently certain venues that require printed or mobile evidence of the NHS COVID Pass, or you can also call 119 to request a letter to show vaccination status.
While no country-wide COVID-19 pass or app exists in the U.S., citizens should be mindful of when and where to carry evidence of vaccination for the purposes of entry to work or school, and even gaining access to indoor venues and events in some cities.
Our ultimate guide to COVID-19 vaccination record cards reviews how to store or download your digital health record, and indicates a few state or healthcare-sponsored options, like CLEAR Digital Health Pass, Excelsior Pass (for residents of New York), and MyVaccineRecord (for residents of California).
What Are the Leading Authorities’ Opinions?
Individuals in possession of an immunity passport could be exempt from physical restrictions and could return to work, school, and daily life.
However, immunity passports pose considerable scientific, practical, equitable, and legal challenges.
In Favor of Immunity Passports
Overall, there are definite positives to the idea of immunity passports, but no real data of how exactly they would work.
Based on what scientists know about immunology, there is reason to assume that recovering from COVID-19 will provide some amount of immunity. Scientists have long known from other diseases, such as hepatitis and the common cold, that your body can protect you from contracting a disease that you’ve already had by producing antibodies.
Health Passports Already Exist
We already see a similar concept at work with the yellow fever immunization cards given to people traveling or living in Africa who have been vaccinated against the disease.
Similarly, while waivers do exist, U.S. university students in some states across the U.S. are required to have meningococcal and Hepatitis B vaccinations.
Other countries have similar rules in place for compulsory immunizations. For example, if you want to reside in Singapore long-term, the country mandates vaccinations for diphtheria and measles by law for children 12 and under and no exemptions or waivers are available.
Digital Apps Are Already in Place
Once a standardized form is accepted, it will be easy for individuals to upon their vaccination or immunity status.
Enables Return to (Somewhat) Normal
And lastly, but maybe the most compelling reason, is that immunity passports allow the economy to open back up for those that have immunity.
Opposed to Immunity Passports
While the arguments in favor of immunity passports get the world’s economy moving much quicker, unfortunately, they are more based on opinion. By contrast, the leading authorities seem to be unanimously opposed to immunity passports — at least for the immediate future.
World Health Organization’s Opinion
“At the present time, do not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines,” per the WHO panel. Overall, The WHO believes that there aren’t enough vaccines available to use an immunity passport as it creates “unnecessary barriers to travel.”
How long COVID-19 immunity lasts is unknown. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that “there is no evidence yet that people who have had COVID-19 will not get a second infection.”
For those who recover from COVID-19, research shows immunity to the virus can last for at least 8 months and may last much longer. For those who receive the COVID-19 vaccine, that immunity can last up to a few years — but since this is still a new vaccine, much is unknown about the long-term results.
COVID-19 booster shots are already being recommended by the CDC if it has been more than 6 months since your original completed dose.
Antibody Testing Unreliable
As discussed above, there’s also the issue of the quality of the testing kits to consider. False positives (or negatives) can have a drastic impact on someone’s life.
The WHO also warns that “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.”
There have been recent reports that immunity passports may violate U.S. law because they would “violate U.S. disability protections.” The Americans with Disabilities Act is broad but could be interpreted to protect against workers being discriminated against based on whether they have or don’t have immunity.
There are also privacy concerns related to immunity passports. Sensitive health information would be included on these passports and critics worry that vaccine passports would set a precedent for future erosions of health privacy. For instance, people might be expected to prove they do not have a certain disease or condition.
In some instances, it might not be an option for someone to receive a vaccine. Specifically, the CDC notes that there have been concerns about pregnant women or women trying to become pregnant or those with certain underlying health conditions as little, if any, testing has been done for these groups, although the CDC recommends pregnant women to still get the vaccine.
Finally, it might encourage fraud, resulting in a black market for fake immunity passports.
So, are immunity passports the key to restarting travel?
The idea of immunity passports sounds very appealing — and like a light at the end of the tunnel. As antibody testing becomes increasingly reliable and readily available, rolling out immunity passports seems more possible than ever. In addition, since vaccines are now widely available here in the U.S., there is now another way to show immunity.
Once standardization across countries is achieved, immunity passports will definitely provide a level of security that many people want to feel before they start traveling again.
What are your thoughts on immunity passports? Would you get a vaccine if it meant you could travel sooner?
All information and content provided by Upgraded Points is intended as general information and for educational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as medical advice or legal advice. For more information, see our Medical & Legal Disclaimers.