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The UK just published blueprints for COVID-19 immunity passports, a controversial route out of lockdown

Business Insider logo Business Insider 4/30/2020 mcoulter@businessinsider.com (Martin Coulter)
a hand holding a cellphone: Immunity passports would see COVID-19 test results tied to an individual's test results Onfido © Onfido Immunity passports would see COVID-19 test results tied to an individual's test results Onfido
  • The UK has published proposals for COVID-19 immunity passports and other technologies that could help it track the virus.
  • A number of well known startups – including Onfido and IDnow – are among those that have submitted ideas for consideration. 
  • Governments around the world are hoping that by tracking people's COVID-19 test results and linking them to their identity, they can lift lockdowns which have crippled the global economy.  
  • But an immunity passport programme will rely on accurate testing, and experts at both the NHS and the WHO have warned it is difficult to tell if someone is immune to the coronavirus.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The UK has published initial proposals for a controversial COVID-19 "immunity passport" that could help track and contain the spread of the virus. 

As testing for the coronavirus ramps up, UK officials have held talks with ID verification startups in recent months to figure out how people who have recovered from the virus can demonstrate their immunity and resume normal life outside of lockdown. Similar talks have taken place in the US.

In theory, by tying an individual's COVID-19 test results to their identity, those with negative results could be given greater freedom to visit shops, the office, or even friends and relatives. For most schemes, this would require some combination of official documents, such as passports or driving licenses, with facial recognition, QR codes, and test results.

NHSX, the innovation arm of the UK's health service, previously issued an open call for submissions from business and technology experts.

It has just published the first round of proposals from private companies via the government's Science and Technology Committee.

A number of prominent ID verification startups have now shared their ideas with the government including Onfido, and OCL, both based in London, as well as Germany's IDnow, and Lithuanian startup iDenfy.

Most of their submissions outline how ID documents could be used alongside facial recognition, QR codes, and test results, to verify an individual's health before allowing them to enter private premises.

a screenshot of a cell phone: A diagram from Onfido's proposals for immunity passports Onfido © Onfido A diagram from Onfido's proposals for immunity passports Onfido

The UK has not committed formally to immunity passports. Health minister Matt Hancock has previously said the government was looking at the available options. 

A common theory is that immunity passports or similar schemes could allow countries to loosen their lockdown restrictions, allowing parts of the workforce to return to the office.

But the concept of immunity certificates is controversial, in part thanks to the lack of robust scientific evidence that someone who has been infected with the virus is subsequently immune to reinfection. 

There have been reports of victims in Wuhan, China testing positive for COVID-19 just weeks after recovering from their first bout with the virus.

And last month, Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the WHO, said: "Right now, we have no evidence that [current tests] can show that an individual has immunity or is protected from reinfection."

WHO previously warned there was not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an "immunity passport" or "risk-free certificate."

And on Tuesday, appearing before the Science and Technology Committee, Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, said he didn't want to push ahead with immunity passports before assessing their scientific merit.

"The science is a considerable way from being able to underpin something like that," he said. "We've been approached by any number of people offering us solutions in this space [and we are] looking at what's available."

He added: "But I wouldn't want the tech cart to come before the horse."

Business Insider approached NHSX for comment.

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