COVID-19 Immunity Passports


Joanna Lee

According to the World Health Organization, “Some governments have suggested that the detection of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could serve as the basis for an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate” that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection.”

Joanna Lee, Multimedia Editor

With health professionals and scientists working around the clock to develop an effective vaccine for COVID-19 and to contain its further spread, the majority of Americans are still struggling to even get their hands on a test. Once an isolated incident, the viral illness has quickly spread to many in the U.S. and soon several cases have been confirmed here in the High Desert community. As of April 10th, 2020, the total confirmed cases in the U.S. has risen to over 500,000 people.

While Governor Newsom had advised the entire state of California to stay at home, many Californians still have to carry out essential activities such as going grocery shopping, visiting the pharmacy, or even going to work.

Given the complexity of the virus, it’s still extremely difficult to ensure that you haven’t come into contact with an infected person even with social distancing measures in place. Visible symptoms may not appear until up to 14 days. Who knows how many people you could’ve come in contact with then?

Recently, government officials and major tech companies have been collaborating together to implement several new strategies to contain the virus. One of which is the so-called “Immunity Cards.” This immunity card, also commonly referred to as an immunity passport or ID, would be used to identify those who have either been tested positive or negative for COVID-19.

Amidst the global discussion of coronavirus immunity cards and tracking devices, several third-party applications have been released, allowing users to track the severity of the outbreak in a given location.(Joanna Lee)

These identification cards would be used to determine whether or not someone is allowed to enter a public space. This is one of the many efforts put in place to gradually open up public spaces after the nationwide lockdown currently in place.

Senior Monica Cortes offers her reaction to the news, stating, “I do like the idea of this app as I think it’d be pretty helpful at a time like now where almost everyone is scared to even leave their homes as they have no clue if others may have the virus or if they are infected themselves.”

Roger Pielke Jr., a columnist at Forbes and a professor at University of Colorado Boulder, claims that the main issue with the latest immunity card proposal was that the NAS (National Academy of Sciences) Committee advising the White House coronavirus task force stated that they didn’t know whether an immunity actually exists or for how long.

In fact, a similar strategy has already been in use for the last several weeks in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 was thought to have originated. In order to board the subway, check into a hotel, or even enter Wuhan, residents have been required to use a sort of health app that displayed a colored ID card along with a scannable barcode.

A green-colored card would indicate that the citizen was symptom-free and would be safe to board the subway or enter a public place. A yellow-colored card would indicate that the person had recently been in contact with an infected person and that they had not finished the required 2-week quarantine. Finally, a red-colored ID card would indicate the person was infected or displayed symptoms of COVID-19 and was still awaiting a diagnosis. These ID cards must be presented to guards upon entering a secured area and must display a green-colored ID card.

Obtaining an ID card sounded relatively simple: Users must fill out an electronic form with personal information and whether they presented any symptoms such as a fever or cough. Other than that, there is no real way for the app to prove that the user was actually healthy.

Authorities in China have threatened that violators will be severely punished. Although the exact penalties for lying about one’s health has yet to be released.

Focusing back on the U.S., the U.S. Federal Government has been collaborating with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and MIT researchers to track COVID-19 patients and who they’ve been in contact with. With this data the CDC plans to create a portal where they would compile smartphone geolocation data to help authorities and health officials predict where an outbreak would likely occur next.

In that interview with The Washington Post, Daniel Weitzner, a researcher at the MIT Computer Science and A.I. Laboratory, claimed that the software “would not reveal anything about the infected person’s identity, only whether two Bluetooth devices have been in close proximity based on anonymous signals.”

Additionally, Google and Apple are currently collaborating to develop a very similar coronavirus tracking system that would be implemented within both Android and iOS devices. The app would utilize a new method called “contact tracing.”

Google provides a graphic that highlights the functionality of its new contact-tracing technology that is in development in partnership with Apple.

Contact tracing is the process of figuring out who an infected person has been in contact with and trying to prevent them from infecting more people. Although the use of digital surveillance technology raises many questions and concerns regarding how effective this technology would be and how private user data is being handled by the federal government, tech companies, and health officials.

Senior Yasmine Fragoso highlights a potential issue, stating, “I know a lot of people would have an issue with such an app. Numerous people will argue that exposing whether or not someone in close proximity has the virus is an invasion of privacy.” Fragoso’s sentiment reveals the true realities of its effectiveness. Many people would not know that their information would be anonymous, thus potentially limiting the impact of the app as they would refuse to download it due to privacy concerns.

Senior Monica Cortes, shares a similar outlook on the technology, adding, “Some patients who test positive for the virus might still be too scared or worried about the app leading to false and inaccurate reports which would then ultimately lead to voluntary response bias. Since the apps would most likely require patients to register themselves, I don’t see it being fully effective.” Voluntary response bias occurs when the sampling population has the ability to not respond. When only a select few of the infected patients choose to download the app, it could skew the data, displaying that users were exposed to far fewer infected patients than they actually were.

Cortes also adds, “While I believe that Google and Apple know how to properly secure and protect your info from getting it stolen, ensuring that it won’t be sold to 3rd party companies is a different story.” This is to no surprise as both Google and Apple had their fair share of controversy regarding transparency on how they handle precious user data.

“The public needs to know; It’s the only way to make people start taking social distancing more seriously. Frankly, it’s like being able to look up who in your area is a sex offender, although not as extreme. It may sound far off, but they both relate to one thing—personal safety,” Fragoso adds. While the app does bring up many concerns, it’s a necessary sacrifice for public safety.

Instead of using GPS data which would track the user’s location, this technology utilizes Bluetooth. The phone would pick up signals from nearby phones at 5-minute intervals, collect and store them in a database, and would notify users if they had come in contact with an infected user within the next few days.

Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Apple, publishes a tweet announcing Apple’s partnership with Google in the development of their new coronavirus contact-tracing app.

The technology takes many steps to ensure that any personally-identifiable information would be removed from the data by broadcasting an anonymous key through Bluetooth, rather than a static identity. The keys will cycle every 15 minutes to ensure the privacy of user data.

When asked about the effectiveness of such a technology in our own High Desert community, Fragoso comments, “Honestly, I think these apps could be super effective in our community IF people downloaded them. I believe an app like this can be very eye-opening and shock people into realizing social distancing is necessary.”

Fragoso shares her personal experience regarding the availability of coronavirus testing and how such an app would have benefited her, “In my case, I got super sick about a week after school was cancelled. I displayed all the symptoms—dry cough, fever, etc. I went to the ER only to be told that although I had most of the symptoms of COVID-19, they didn’t want to test me as I didn’t develop pneumonia yet…Our national shortage of tests prevented me from getting tested as I wasn’t the definition of a “severely ill” patient. I believe that this app would be especially helpful as it includes not only those who tested positive but as well as those who show symptoms and couldn’t get access to a test. My point is, this virus is so much more present than people realize, and I think an app would help recognize that. I would download it in a heartbeat.”

8th grader Alisa Rajha notes, “A lot of people don’t have phones. I doubt that everyone is going to know about this app.” Although the world is rapidly adapting to this new digital age, not everybody has a smartphone or a device with bluetooth capabilities. Rajha suggests a potential solution to this issue, stating, “What if the United States government sent a mandatory update containing the app to ALL cellular devices so we wouldn’t have to worry about people not downloading it?”

As we soon approach a world that will entirely rely on technology and the internet, more and more issues will arise—issues that seemed almost inconceivable no less than 15 or 20 years ago. As the issues of communication and internet access start to diminish, concerns regarding privacy and safety take its place. Would you download these apps?