For the next phase of the COVID-19 response, some governments – including those of Chile, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the USA – have asserted that the detection of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) could serve as the basis for an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate” (WHO 2020). Assuming that antibodies would protect against re-infection, these measures would, in theory, enable individuals to travel or return to work. However, the extent of this travel remains unclear, while such practices of surveillance also raise scientific, social, ethical, and legal concerns.

We argue that the imposition of antibody testing and immunity passports plays on – and exacerbates – structural vulnerabilities, and it does not protect the rights and interests of those who cannot demonstrate immunity. Moreover, how much immunity infection confers, and for how long, is still unknown (Studdert 2020). This style of biopolitics promotes thinking about individual prerogatives instead of social solidarity, also raising questions about what kinds of health for which publics we want to cultivate and protect.

Ultimately, the notion of using medical testing for a disease as a means of apportioning vital freedoms and resources raises substantial social and ethical concerns. COVID-19 antibody testing and immunity passports are likely to exacerbate existing inequalities if they: (a) are not backed-up by reliable data and adequate social policy that address the concerns and needs of those facing severe social and health-based disadvantage; and (b) fail to reflect the outcomes of thoughtful engagements with communities who will both benefit from and potentially be penalised by these innovations. Until these conditions are met, we cannot recommend the introduction of so-called “immunity passports”.


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Cite as

De Togni, G., Boydell, N., Chan, S., Erikainen, S., Ford, A., Ganguli-Mitra, A., Lawrence, D., Montgomery, C., Pickersgill, M., Richards, R., Sethi, N. & Swallow, J. 2020, 'Imagining Life with “Immunity Passports”: Managing Risk during a Pandemic', Discover Society, 01 June, pp. 1-4. https://www.research.ed.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/imagining-life-with-immunity-passports(cabca555-3a5b-4200-8594-e873a42f884d).html

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Last updated: 17 June 2022
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