Nov 7, 2020 - Health

Designing digital immunity certificates for COVID-19

Illustration of a passport with a syringe.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Companies are preparing to design digital immunity certificates for COVID-19 that could be used when a vaccine is available.

Why it matters: The vaccine won't roll out to everyone at the same time, so we need some way for those who have been immunized to easily demonstrate that they can safely return to work and travel. The easiest way might be a digital certificate that can be linked to a passport or even a mobile phone.

Background: The World Health Organization already issues paper "yellow cards" that act as an international certification of vaccination, primarily to be used when entering a country that has enhanced health risks to travelers.

  • But a paper certificate, as experts warned in a white paper released earlier this year, could be subject to fraud and would be too difficult to quickly scale up for hundreds of millions of people.
  • Digital certificates, though, could be rapidly and safely distributed and made easily verifiable at borders or even in businesses, says Lars Reger, the CTO of the semiconductor company NXP, which makes biometric technology now used in some passports.

How it works: Digital certificates could be added onto biometric passports or other smart ID cards that already contain a small chip that is used to confirm the identity of the holder.

  • Another option would be to make use of the contactless payment system currently available in most recent smartphones, which could "easily transport the information that someone has certified immunity," says Reger.
  • Rolling out such a functionality to smartphones would eliminate the need for investing in new technology, and any business that can read contactless payments should be able to accept immunity certificates with just a software update, he says.

The catch: Some critics worry digital immunity certificates could cause discrimination between those who can show immunity and those who can't.

  • We also have to be sure those who receive such certificates really are immune, an immunological uncertainty that torpedoed earlier plans to issue certificates to those who had contracted the disease.

The bottom line: The real challenge around digital immunity certificates isn't the relatively easy technology, but the hard ethical challenges around ensuring everyone ultimately has access to a workable vaccine.

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