Should your health determine where you get to travel?
As the world begins to open once again after the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to consider how to do so safely in order to minimize further spread of the virus. One possible idea—being considered by countries including Chile, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the United States—is to have an immunity passport: a physical or digital document confirming that a person has become immune to SARS-CoV-2. While immunity certifications are typically discussed in the context of allowing a person to return to work or school, they are also being considered in the context of travel as a way to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus from regions with high infection rates to those that have not been as severely impacted by the global pandemic. And while this does make sense in theory, the idea of immunity passports raises several ethical questions, including who will have access to the passports and antibody testing, what privileges the passport would provide, and what happens when you effectively create two different classes of people based on immunity to a virus. Here’s what travelers should know and consider.
The Science Behind an Immunity Passport
First, let’s take a look at the logistics of such a system. We’re not quite there yet when it comes to the science required for immunity passports. At this point, we don’t have a “gold standard” antibody test that confirms with 100% certainty whether a person has developed antibodies after having COVID-19. Without that, it’s not helpful to issue immunity passports because it’s unsure whether the results would be accurate. Along the same lines, researchers are still trying to figure out what having antibodies from COVID-19 would mean. For instance, do antibodies mean someone actually has immunity to that strain of the virus? If so, how long would the immunity last? If a person is awarded an immunity passport, but it is later learned that immunity only lasts three months, this person could have the potential to have unknowingly spread the virus during their travels. These are all crucial aspects of the immunity passport equation that have to be solved before implementing this type of system.
What Do Health-Related Travel Restrictions Look Like?
When dealing with a highly contagious virus like SARS-CoV-2, it makes sense from a public health perspective to take appropriate caution before allowing people to travel again. Of course, this is the case for international travel, but it could also happen within the United States. For example, would people from cities or states with high infection rates be required to prove their immunity to the virus before traveling somewhere that wasn’t hit as hard by the pandemic?
When it comes to international travel, we already have some guidance on this. The International Health Regulations, published by the World Health Organization in 2005, states that countries can implement health measures that “achieve the same or greater level of health protection than WHO recommendations,” also noting that these measures must have a health rationale, be non-discriminatory, consider the human rights of travelers, be based on scientific evidence, and not be more restrictive of international traffic than reasonably available alternatives. But the scientific evidence for COVID-19 just isn’t there yet.
Health Passports Are Already (Sort of) Here
A potential immunity passport system to help facilitate travel in the age of COVID-19 has been compared to the yellow fever immunization cards given to people traveling or living in Africa who have been vaccinated against the disease. However, having documentation proving immunity would be more difficult than having proof that someone has been vaccinated. Dr. Jessica Justman, associate professor of medicine in epidemiology and the senior technical director of the International Center for AIDS Care at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health recently told Rolling Stone that she could envision an immunity card or passport as a requirement for international travel.
“For crossing borders, I could imagine some kind of immunity card,” she said. But she also stresses that we need to look at the other end of the spectrum too—like whether immunity cards would be required in order to go into a grocery store.
“That would be too much,” she said, noting that she’s unsure how U.S. citizens would react to having to show a document to be allowed into a supermarket. “But I think people could go along with it to cross an international border,” she added.
Who Gets a Passport and How Could It Work?
As much as some of us may want to jump right back into traveling as soon as we’re able, there are several ethical issues to consider. First, at this point, it’s unclear who will have access to antibody testing (once the science has been perfected) and therefore, an immunity passport. This could mean that without the right connections or enough money to spend on certification, even people who would be eligible for immunity passports might still not have access to them. This could, in turn, create two different classes of people: those who are permitted to travel, and those who aren’t.
People who may be eligible for immunity passports may not actually have access to them. This could, in turn, create two different classes of people: those who are permitted to travel, and those who aren’t.
In addition, Dr. Daniel Goldberg, an attorney and associate professor at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, says that travelers should be aware that restrictions involving immunity passports may limit or otherwise affect their access to social services, major tourist sites, and public transit.
“Where they exist, such requirements may restrict access to places and situations deemed at especially high risk of transmitting COVID19,” he tells Fodor’s Travel. “Such contexts might include large group gatherings especially in tight/enclosed indoor spaces, or access to places with a concentration of people at elevated risk—like nursing homes and long-term care facilities, prisons, etc.”
Who Recognizes the Passport?
Finally, at this point, it is unclear whether and to what extent countries may recognize immunity passports granted in other countries.
“Travelers should be aware of these uncertainties and factor them into their planning,” Goldberg advises. For instance, even if one country recognizes your immunity passport, that doesn’t mean the bordering country will grant you the same travel privileges. This could have an impact on road trips, train rides, backpacking—all sorts of nomadic travel we take for granted in a globalized world.
Overall, we don’t know what our world is going to look like one month from now—let alone a year from now—and how the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to disrupt travel as we knew it. But as travel gradually starts to get back to some version of normal again, it’s important to keep potential new requirements like immunity passports—and the ethical dilemmas of such documentation–in mind as you begin to consider future plans for travel.