COVID-19 immunity passports are seen as a way to get people back to work and travelling. The problem is that the phrase is misleading. An immunity passport relies on the principle that recovery equals immunity. That premise is one that the World Health Organisation and an increasing number of medical studies say is unproven. A recent article in The Scientist referenced two studies that suggest immunity fades over time.
It is not just health risks that are of concern. As the UK’s attempt to create its track and trace programme demonstrated, there is growing concern that responses to COVID-19 will have a significant impact on privacy. To compound that, there is a new concern that the idea of COVID-19 immunity passports pose a risk to human rights.
A better name is digital health certificate or passport. This is because many of the solutions that Enterprise Times has covered, allow a user to attach the results of several tests. In effect, each test is analogous to a visa. Each test taken by a user is recorded in the passport and can be used to access locations and services.
Enterprise Times has reported on COVI-PASS, TIXnGO, and E-HCert. They all offer a combination of testing and digital health certificates. Others such as IDnow offer highly secure identity services that are being used as part of a government platform.
New research to examine the impact of immunity passports
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have launched a new study. It is to examine the impact of digital health certificates showing health status on data privacy and human rights. The study is being led by Dr Ana Beduschi from the University of Exeter Law School.
The study will look at the risks and seek to establish whether there is a way to mitigate those risks. Choosing Beduschi to run the study makes sense. She recently completed two investigative studies looking at digital identities and the rights of migrants and refugees. It means that Beduschi already brings an understanding of the risks and opportunities that digital identities bring.
Dr Beduschi said: “Immunity passports would lead to a segmentation of the population, and this could undermine the very essence of our shared values of human dignity and equality enshrined in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That could lead to discrimination and stigmatisation of those not immune or not yet free from the virus.
“For instance, those with the “wrong” digital credentials would see significant restrictions to their rights, in particular, the right to liberty, the right to work, the right to education, the right to respect for family life, the freedom to manifest one’s religion and the right to freedom of assembly and association.”
A lack of tests and technology
What Beduschi is rightly concerned about is discrimination and exclusion based on a person’s immunity status. There is a significant shortage of test kits. There are also questions over the reliability and cost of those that are out there. Even where tests kits are available, how frequently they should be administered is in question.
The Premier League is testing footballers twice a week. By comparison, COVI-PASS suggests that business would test employees every two weeks. In both cases, it is assumed that the employer would cover the cost of a test. However, in the UK and other European countries, there is no government mandate that employers are liable for the cost. It could see employees having to cover that cost themselves. For the self-employed and gig workers who are likely to have to do their testing, there is a need for access to affordable tests.
The risk of discrimination and exclusion
Existing solutions also assume that people will have a phone or device on which the technology can be installed. Security vendor Anomali reported earlier this year that the technology required for track and trace was not in use by the elderly and the vulnerable. As that same technology is necessary to retain and show the results of tests, it creates an automatic exclusion zone.
Beduschi commented: “Until a vaccine is available, digital health certificates could thus exclude a large part of the population from exercising their rights. That can disproportionately affect those in already vulnerable situations or in poverty, as they are more likely to have health issues and to work in precarious conditions. If they are also denied access to work because they cannot prove immunity to the virus, they may lose their only source of income and risk destitution.”
To get around this, Beduschi is concerned that people may choose to get infected to acquire immunity. Early on in the pandemic, there were calls for people to stage Coronavirus parties to accelerate herd immunity. There is little evidence that those happened. What is now known is that this is not just about immunity. There are very significant long-term health risks associated with COVID-19.
Enterprise Times: What does this mean
People want to get out of lockdown and go back to work and resume their normal lives. Businesses want people back at work, retailers want them shopping, and airlines want them onboard. However, to do so requires mechanisms that keep customers and workers safe, governments are saying that means some form of immunity passport.
Talking about her earlier work, Beduschi said: “It’s a great thing that technology will eventually be able to provide everyone with identification, but this area is currently under-regulated at international level, meaning that there are implications for human rights such as the right to privacy and data protection. Technology seems to be evolving faster than the law, which makes this research all the more important.”
This study, led by Beduschi, and funded by the UKRI and ESRC, will provide a key data point as we move to an economic recovery from COVID-19. Can we create an inclusive solution? Do digital identities pose data risks? What are the threats to human rights? Technology companies claim they can provide the answer, but their solutions are far from ubiquitous.