A COVID-19 “immunity passport” is still just an idea, as there is not enough evidence to show that people who have contracted the disease will have permanent immunity, a biomedical specialist said yesterday.
Shih Shin-ru (施信如), director of Chang Gung University’s Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections and a member of the Central Epidemic Command Center’s specialist advisory panel, gave a speech on the idea of “immunity passports” at a conference on diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 in Taipei.
The conference, held at National Taiwan University’s College of Medicine, was organized by the Taiwan Society of Microbiology, the Taiwan Society of Clinical Pathologists, and the Society of Taiwan Long-Term Care Infection Prevention and Control at National Taiwan University’s College of Medicine.
COVID-19 has only been around for a few months, so no one yet knows its long-term health effects, or who would only have mild symptoms, as people of all ages and health conditions have died from it, Shih said, adding US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci’s comment, “we literally ‘do not know’ what we do not know.”
The idea of testing authorities issuing a COVID-19 “immunity passport” or certificate after serology tests demonstrate that the bearer has antibodies making them immune to the disease as a way of boosting economic recovery and international travel has gained popularity, she said.
Five factors that should be considered before issuing such a passport include whether “recovered patients have protective immunity that prevents them from being re-infected,” Shih said.
However, so far COVID-19 studies have not been able to prove there is protective immunity from the disease, as some recovered patients have tested positive again, and whether they were re-infected or the virus had not been eliminated from their body is still not clear, she said.
Another factor would need to be that “the protective immunity is long-lasting,” but immunity from other types of coronaviruses has not lasted very long, and specialists in many nations think immunity to SARS-CoV-2 might be able to last about six months, based on the fact that neutralizing antibodies against the virus can still be found in recovered patients who contracted the disease in January, she said.
Given that the WHO on April 24 said that “there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport,’” there are also ethical concerns that issuing an immunity certificate for work or travel could force people to take tests or risk losing their jobs, or even create an incentive for people to intentionally get infected, Shih said.
More studies are needed to understand whether recovered COVID-19 patients are immune to secondary infection, she said.
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