APR 23, 2020 6:49 AM PDT

COVID "Immunity Passports" Are a No-Go

WRITTEN BY: Tara Fernandez

 

Authorities are caught between dealing with the competing urgencies of abating the COVID-19 health crisis and the looming threat of an economic recession. With an approved drug, or better still, a COVID-19 vaccine still a way off, other solutions are being considered to accelerate communities’ return to normalcy. 

European leaders are currently discussing the idea of using “immunity passports” as a means of getting the workforce up and running with those who have recovered from the coronavirus infection. To test the feasibility of such strategies, researchers in Germany are launching a mass study to quantify COVID-19 immunity in the population prior to easing lockdown measures.

“Those who are immune could be issued with a kind of vaccination pass that would for example allow them to be exempted from restrictions on their activity,” said Gerard Krause, head of epidemiology at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research.

Realistically, the concept of immunity passports has two major failings. Firstly, without widespread access to accurate diagnostic tests, we are unable to categorically confirm infections. On top of that, we are still unable to properly define immunity or understand the risks of reinfection and infecting others.

In response to the pandemic, biotechnology companies lost no time in developing COVID-19 diagnostic kits, which have flooded markets across the globe. Unfortunately, many of these kits are a let down in terms of accuracy and reliability. Reports of dubious diagnostic kits made in China are making headlines, with chances of getting an accurate result as low as 30 percent. To make matters worse, the quick, easy, point-of-care diagnostics that provide results in minutes are so notoriously unreliable that even the World Health Organization is cautioning against using them. The problem is that very few of these tests have undergone rigorous testing and validation to ensure their quality and performance.

 

 

Even if we do have access to sure-fire testing kits, scientists are still unsure whether recovering from COVID-19 gives a person complete immunity against reinfection. Experts estimate that it will take a couple of weeks after infection to build up protective levels of antiviral antibodies, but these might only be enough to keep the coronavirus at bay for a few months. For instance, health officials in South Korea are puzzled over why 163 convalescent COVID-19 patients are retesting positive for the virus. Some theories for this phenomenon include viral “reactivation” after infection, or a consequence of inaccurate testing kits.

In any case, to have protective immunity, a person has to have neutralizing antibodies — a specific type of immunoglobulin that no currently-available kit can test for. Likewise, diagnostic tests are not able to rule out whether a person who has contracted COVID-19 is still infectious. A recent study found that patients continue to shed the virus long after symptoms subside, keeping the risk of infecting others elevated without social distancing measures.

For now, developing accurate testing measures and continued social distancing will be our best way out of the impasse. As Peter Collignon, a physician and microbiologist at Australian National University said, “Despite the challenges, once reliable antibody tests are available, they could be important to understanding which groups of people have been infected and how to stop further spread.”



 

Sources: The Guardian, Nature, The New York Times.


 

About the Author
  • Tara Fernandez has a PhD in Cell Biology and has spent over a decade uncovering the molecular basis of diseases ranging from skin cancer to obesity and diabetes. She currently works on developing and marketing disruptive new technologies in the biotechnology industry. Her areas of interest include innovation in molecular diagnostics, cell therapies, and immunology. She actively participates in various science communication and public engagement initiatives to promote STEM in the community.
You May Also Like
MAR 18, 2021
Immunology
"Brainwashed" Immune Cells Help Breast Tumors Thrive
MAR 18, 2021
"Brainwashed" Immune Cells Help Breast Tumors Thrive
Immunologists have discovered a mechanism through which immune cells get recruited into breast cancer tumors, and instea ...
MAR 22, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Improving Cancer Immunotherapy While Reducing Autoimmune Side Effects
MAR 22, 2021
Improving Cancer Immunotherapy While Reducing Autoimmune Side Effects
Immunotherapy aims to make a patient's immune cells better at fighting cancer. The immune system has to be used carefull ...
APR 06, 2021
Immunology
Lymphoma Patient Cured by "Reeducating" their Immune System
APR 06, 2021
Lymphoma Patient Cured by "Reeducating" their Immune System
Australian researchers have used a breakthrough therapy to cure a patient diagnosed with a rare brain lymphoma, a form o ...
APR 22, 2021
Immunology
Healthy, Young People Are Getting Reinfected With COVID
APR 22, 2021
Healthy, Young People Are Getting Reinfected With COVID
If you’re young and healthy and you’ve had COVID, your body will produce protective antibodies that guard yo ...
MAY 20, 2021
Immunology
Why Delaying the 2nd COVID Shot is Paying Off for Some
MAY 20, 2021
Why Delaying the 2nd COVID Shot is Paying Off for Some
A new study indicates that delaying the second “booster” dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine (to 11-12 ...
JUL 18, 2021
Cancer
Light Alcohol Use Linked to Higher Cancer Risk
JUL 18, 2021
Light Alcohol Use Linked to Higher Cancer Risk
Moderate alcohol use is linked to a substantially higher risk of several forms of cancer, including breast, colon, and o ...
Loading Comments...