Health Passports may Feature in a Post-COVID Europe

Health Passports may Feature in a Post-COVID Europe

The European Union has seen a “very significant” increase in weekly cases of COVID-19 for the first time in months, says the World Health Organization (WHO). The resurgence coincides with the relaxing of movement restrictions across the region and, if left unchecked, could see European health systems pushed to the brink yet again.

Close to 200,000 deaths have been reported in Europe since the beginning of the year. Accelerated transmission in more than 11 places, including Sweden and Germany, has given new momentum to the ongoing debate about immunity or health passports.

Establishing the rate of immunisation

A hotly debated subject since April, the idea of a health passport has been proposed as a means to revive tourism across the bloc and to allow mostly essential workers greater freedom of movement. For some, a health passport is the missing piece in ensuring a sustainable and reliable relaxation of restrictions. Others are more sceptical of what they fear is a supposed “quick fix” to the ongoing pandemic.

A mass study is underway to assess how many people are already immune to the coronavirus. Some 100,000 volunteers will have their blood tested for Covid-19 antibodies throughout the year, so as to help determine the robustness and longevity of survivors’ immune responses. In most normal coronaviruses, including those behind the common cold, human immunity typically only lasts around 12 months. Whether this applies in the case of Covid-19 SARS CoV-2 as well remains, for now, a matter of contention among scientists.

Germany in particular is a vocal proponent of the health passport, and moved to secure 420 million euros in funding from Swiss drugmaker Roche to roll-out antibody test production and construct a new diagnostics research and development centre. The established rate of immunisation among the population would then serve as the basis for the passport’s rollout.

High-tech to the rescue

Since the idea of a document to certify immunity was first floated at the beginning of the pandemic, governments and companies have been exploring technology solutions to devise a health passport that is both effective and trustworthy. A technological frontrunner is Swiss security technology firm SICPA, which has proposed a QR code-based solution for people who are shown to have COVID-antibodies.

Best known for its development of security inks for currencies and sensitive documents, the company’s health passport solution – in cooperation with French health data platform OpenHealth and Estonian blockchain specialist Guardtime – would see blockchain technology combined with QR codes as a way to best secure personal data. Immune individuals would receive a certificate secured by a digital sealing technology that can be verified via smartphone.

The result would be a health passport that enables real-time verification of a person’s test result status respecting their privacy concerns. The system is currently under consideration in Switzerland, where another company, Health n Go, is working on a system underpinned by blockchain as well.

A race against time

Which solution will eventually be applied in the EU or even Switzerland is not clear yet, but countries outside the EU are already moving forward with their own systems. The UK, for example, is moving toward a smartphone app using facial recognition to cross-check NHS records for survivors with antibodies. These individuals would then be issued a “certification” of immunity.

Current predictions put a safe and viable COVID-19 vaccine being made available by the end of 2021. Even then, the logistics of vaccinating human beings on a global scale are highly challenging. The fact that policymakers are investigating technologically-sound alternatives in the meantime could be the long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel.

Image: Jernej Furman/Flickr

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