The Government of Canada has no plan to implement a controversial tracing tool, colloquially called immunity passports. These passports will allow those with COVID-19 immunity to prove that they are not capable of transmitting the disease, thus allowing governments to lift restrictions on specific individuals so they can enter restaurants, cross borders or return to work.
With full inoculation of the public being months away, and the second wave of COVID-19 setting infection records daily, keeping track of the infected and recovered is more important than ever. The way these apps would work is simple. Once the patient’s information is entered, the user is securely able to access their information and can provide it to authorities through a QR code. Governments around the world, like Hungary and Iceland, are looking at immunity passports. Several airlines, including Cathay Pacific and United Airlines, have adopted them. Along with Hungary and Iceland, Chile is moving ahead with their immunity passport app and hard copy cards. Estonia is still piloting theirs.
Immunity passports are lauded as a way for organizations like the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and equivalent international counterparts to closely monitor who comes into a country. The spokesperson for CBSA, Rebecca Purdy, told NCM that currently, they haven’t received any instructions from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to require immunity passports. They are, however, carrying on with their quarantine measures where “all persons entering Canada MUST isolate themselves for 14 days if they have symptoms of or confirmed COVID-19 or quarantine themselves for 14 days if they do not have symptoms of COVID-19.”
Health Canada did not return NCM’s inquiry by the deadline. A spokesperson for the EU’s Health, Food Safety and Transport department was careful to not mention immunity passports but instead said, “We are looking at all possible solutions for staying safe while gradually returning back to normal, including the use of vaccination certificates to demonstrate a person’s vaccination status.” The WHO’s European office was similarly careful to distinguish immunity passports from vaccination documentation. They said they don’t recommend immunity passports but are “currently exploring how the common vaccination record, which shows what vaccines a person has received, could be done electronically.”
Debate on the use of “immunity passports”
While it appears, at first, that an immunity passport is a no-brainer, the debate around the subject shows it is anything but. Various groups around the world have come forward to oppose such a measure. The lack of certainty behind immunity building and vaccine efficacy, erosion of privacy and the marginalization of people without an immunity of COVID-19. A BBC article speculated about the potential creation of an antibody elite. Member of European Parliament (MEP), Marc Angel, from Luxembourg, showed particular concern about immunity passports. He said in the European Parliament: “I believe that the EU must oppose the proposal to use ‘immunity passports’ or ‘risk-free certificates.’” He believes that the understanding of COVID-19 immunity is still not strong enough to warrant the issuing of these certificates. “The use of such certificates may increase the risks of continued transmission,” Angel added. Several Canadian media outlets have condemned the use of immunity passports with CTV calling them a “terrible idea”, and the CBC urged readers to “fight tooth and nail against proof-of-immunity cards.”
But supporters of the measure address critics’ concerns by approaching the same questions from the opposite direction. In a paper, titled The Scientific and Ethical Feasibility of Immunity Passports published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, four scientists from Oxford University attempt to dispel concerns. “Following symptomatic infection, most patients develop antibody responses, with the majority of these individuals having neutralising antibodies,” said the study. However, the report is careful to say “like all antibody responses to viral infections, responses to SARS-CoV-2 wane in the weeks after infection.”
The scientists also argue that those who do have an immune response are having their rights restricted unfairly by being forced to remain in lockdown. “It is unethical to require someone to avoid contact with others if they pose no or minimal risk of spreading the virus,” they say. The report acknowledges a need to protect patient privacy against “troublesome monitoring of people’s movements,” but “the point of immunity passports is to facilitate movement when it is safe to do so.”
Canada has embraced electronic solutions to COVID containment. The COVID Alert app has aided the public in avoiding areas that are hotspots. Authorities are able to use it in contact tracing efforts. The ArriveCAN app helps border officials and healthcare workers to keep track of the general health of entrants to Canada as well as their quarantine arrangements. Canada has yet to implement an immunity passport.
Mansoor Tanweer is New Canadian Media’s Local Journalism Initiative reporter on immigration policy. An immigrant himself, he has covered municipal affairs and the Brampton City Council in addition to issues relating to newcomers over several years.