Is a COVID-19 ‘immunity passport’ next for the UK to get back to work?

The Guardian is reporting that UK ministers are in talks with Onfido, a UK company which uses facial biometrics for identity verification. An ‘immunity passport’ would combine identity verification with a medical history on whether that person has had COVID-19. The government could use antigen tests, which show current infections, or a test that detects IgM antibodies. For past infections, the test would need to detect IgG antibodies. This passport would be several months in the future.

The question is if the tests work especially for past infections and access to reliable testing. For instance, the earliest instances of COVID-19 may have occurred in the US starting in late November. Will the IgG antibody still be present? These tests are still developing and are not widespread yet, despite many companies’ claims. Both Roche in the US and Quotient in Edinburgh have new lab-based tests that apparently have superior accuracy. Roche received emergency use approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for their test, while Quotient is claiming 99.8 accuracy for 36,000 antibody tests a day in 35 minutes.

The process that Onfido outlined works like this:

  1. Use an app to take a facial picture that you match to your government-issued id. The app matches the two to verify your identity and can also detect if the ID is fake.
  2. Get a test to determine whether you have had the coronavirus
  3. At work, you open the app at reception and take a picture of your face that generates a QR code. This is scanned by the receptionist and confirms whether you have immunity or not.
  4. If you have a match, you can enter the workplace.

Of course this discriminates against those with smartphones, and if your facial appearance has changed. Example: if your government ID was taken with a beard and you’re now clean-shaven, in this Editor’s estimation you will have a problem. Most government IDs also look like the pictures of missing appearing on milk cartons, so what your app takes could very well not match.

It’s also unknown whether the antibodies even confer immunity–and for how long.

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