A new study will examine the risks coronavirus “immunity passports” pose to human rights as more countries begin to use technology to monitor health during the pandemic.
Digital health certificates could be used as a way of allowing people who may have acquired immunity to COVID-19 to return to work and to travel. However, they pose important problems for data privacy and human rights protections and could disproportionately affect the vulnerable and poor.
New research funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) led by Dr Ana Beduschi, from the University of Exeter Law School, will evaluate how digital certificates showing health status will affect the data privacy and the protection of human rights. The study will assess whether there are effective ways to mitigate any potential risks.
Dr Beduschi said: "Immunity passports would lead to a segmentation of the population, and this could undermine the very essence of our shared values of human dignity and equality enshrined in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That could lead to discrimination and stigmatisation of those not immune or not yet free from the virus.
"For instance, those with the "wrong" digital credentials would see significant restrictions to their rights, in particular, the right to liberty, the right to work, the right to education, the right to respect for family life, the freedom to manifest one's religion and the right to freedom of assembly and association."
Digital health certificates could include COVID-19 test results, antibody test results, or eventually vaccination certificates and could be displayed on mobile phones, QR codes or even electronic bracelets.
Pharmaceutical companies and biotech start-ups have continued developing serological tests for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, despite calls for caution from the World Health Organisation highlighting the scientific shortcomings of immunity passports. Similarly, efforts to develop digital technologies for immunity and health status verification are currently underway.
In the near future, these technologies might be used to verify one's immunity, vaccination records and COVID-19 test results. They would build on digital identity technologies that already exist and can be quickly deployed.
In China, individuals must show digital credentials (as QR codes) proving they don't have the virus or have complied with strict quarantine rules to access public and private spaces, including taxis, restaurants, public transport and parks. In Estonia, a pilot test in underway by which individuals use a temporary QR code on their mobile phones to display their coronavirus test results and gain access to workplaces, restaurants and other shared spaces.
Dr Beduschi said: "Data suggests in some countries only small numbers of people have been infected, and thus acquired some sort of antibody-mediated immunity. Until a vaccine is available, digital health certificates could thus exclude a large part of the population from exercising their rights.
"That can disproportionately affect those in already vulnerable situations or in poverty, as they are more likely to have health issues and to work in precarious conditions. If they are also denied access to work because they cannot prove immunity to the virus, they may lose their only source of income and risk destitution.
"Moreover, people may respond to requirements for proof of immunity as incentives to seek to become infected and acquire immunity, thus gaining access to work and more freedom. Such practices, which are not without precedents in the past, could cause numerous deaths and new waves of the disease.
"Therefore, it is vital that an appropriate balance is found between the protection of public health and economic interests and respect for individuals' rights. That will prevent future erosion of data privacy and keep alive the human rights standards and rules that protect us all, especially during challenging times."