People who test positive for coronavirus antibodies could be given certificates to allow them to move freely but critics have expressed ethical and scientific objections.
Officials in the UK are planning to introduce coronavirus antibody certificates, which would excuse those who have been infected with the virus in the past from certain social distancing measures.
The certification scheme floated by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock works on the assumptions that like similar viruses, exposure to the coronavirus, will result in immunity from picking it up again and spreading it further down the line.
Given the scale of the outbreak in the UK, it is believed that a large proportion of the country has already been infected by the virus, with some studies putting the number at one in 20 or five percent. Millions of people could therefore benefit from such a move.
An antibody is the body’s way of identifying and fighting off pathogens inside someone’s system. It is essentially a protein, which binds to the invading object destroying it and leaving it unable to replicate.
The UK expects to have up to 10 million antibody tests that can deliver results in 20 minutes, once trials have been completed.
However, the idea has critics who oppose it based on scientific, as well as ethical grounds.
Scientists around the world have been publishing studies on the level of immunity past infection can provide with no clear consensus on the degree to which those infected in the past are immune or for how long.
That is because there are no definitive answers as to how many variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus there are, and how exposure to one may affect immunity against another.
As things currently stand, the World Health Organization has flatly stated that: “There is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport.”
It is generally thought, nevertheless, that past infection provides some degree of immunity due to the scarcity of cases where patients have been infected with the virus twice.
Assuming a degree of immunity, there remains another level of concern involving the ethics of immunity passports.
The first was described in an article by Bloomberg, which warned that the freedoms engendered by having such a passport, as opposed to not having one and remaining in lockdown, provided incentive for people to seek out coronavirus infection so they could return to normal life.
Given the high death rates associated with Covid-19, this could lead to a spike in fatalities as the psychological barrier to avoid infection weakens.
The second concern raised by ethicists is that dividing society into those who can move with freedom and those who remain in lockdown essentially creates a two-tiered society. Authorities in Germany have put plans to issue such certificates on hold until these issues are properly debated by lawmakers.