While traveling through Airbnbs in Brooklyn, a list stands out. “IMMUNE HOST,” says the caption in capital letters. Among the photos of sunsets and rooftop interiors is something else unexpected – a photo of a positive antibody test.
Host Martin Eaton says he was tested a few weeks after falling ill with what he suspected was Covid-19 in March. When the results came back positive, he decided to include it in his profile to attract reservations.
“If I were to travel to New York, I would prefer to stay with someone who had the antibodies rather than someone who did not,” said the 48-year-old writer. So far, he adds, “it has been quite successful.”
In the absence of a vaccine, immunity is becoming a potential key to resuming normal life after the pandemic – which makes some believe that a positive test may not be such a bad thing. As long as they survive, they will at least – they hope – be safe. But as states and countries slowly reopen their businesses to the public, how important will they be?
Questions remain about the accuracy of Covid-19 antibody tests and the World Health Organization has warned that there is no evidence that people who have recovered from the virus and have antibodies are protected against a second infection.
But experts predict that if survivors are immune, they could perform a range of jobs and services – such as volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes, caring for coronavirus patients, and working in stores. and food processing plants – safe. And, depending on how authorities, businesses and society in general react, they may also be entitled to greater freedoms.
In Chile, the government issues “release certificates” (but they will not confirm immunity) to people who complete quarantine after being tested positive. In China, “health code” applications are used to determine who can travel where.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said that immunity certificates were “possible” in the United States and that “they may in fact have some merit in certain circumstances “
Provided that there is a way to certify that people have passed the test, that it was effective and that the antibodies last, Dr. Ezekiel J Emanuel, president of the medical ethics and health policy department of the University of Pennsylvania says immunity passports could have been “True Positive” for the patient and the community at large.
He also believes that it will become necessary for travel – even after a vaccine – to prove immunity and as a means of avoiding quarantine. “Showing that you have been infected and that you are immune and that you cannot transmit the virus is a really powerful mechanism. “
The concept is already adopted by the private sector. Sidehide hotel reservation app and verification company Onfido are developing an immunity passport for hotels, which are scheduled to launch in Miami this month.
These are the perceived benefits of immunity that some people intentionally try to catch the potentially deadly virus.
Dr. Jerome Williams Jr, cardiologist and senior vice president of consumer engagement at Novant Health, said several people had tested positive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina after attending “parties on the coronavirus “- gathering positive people without protection – in the hope of being infected.
Without knowing exactly how immunity works, the parties are, he says, “a bad idea all around.”
Despite the perceived benefits of immunity, creating a system that publicly identifies people with antibodies opens up security and privacy concerns.
The ACLU warned against immunity passports, which it believed could incite the poor to risk their lives to fall intentionally ill so that they could work, exacerbate racial and economic disparities, encourage surveillance of the health and threaten the right to privacy.
Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, says that immunity is not “the new golden ticket” that it is perceived.
“It just opens up a Pandora’s box of questions about how we determine who is immune, how we record and record who is immune, how we track people and what happens to people which are not? ” he says. “So I can easily see it becoming another source of controversy in an already divided country.”
During the 19th century in the southern United States, yellow fever – which had a 50% mortality rate – created an “epidemiological hierarchy” of those who had and did not have it, explains Kathryn Olivarius, assistant professor of history at Stanford University.
This, she adds, created an “immunocapital” that affected the ability of newly arrived whites to obtain employment, housing and insurance policies, which meant that they had no other choice. than trying to get infected.
Olivarius is concerned that a similar situation could arise today if employers start hiring only people with antibodies. “I fear we are developing this system, the wealthy, the poor, it almost seems like science fiction. “
Immune status could also lead to discrimination. Last month, it was revealed that the US military was considering banning people hospitalized with coronaviruses – advice they have since returned.
There is, warns Olivarius, “a fine line between privilege and stigma”. “Even though there are advantages to being potentially immunized, like being able to work, maybe immunity later on could turn into some kind of stigmatized status. “
But according to Cathy O’Neil, mathematician and author of Weapons of Math Destruction, immunity is unlikely to give people much power, since brown and black people are the hardest hit by the virus and therefore more likely to be immune.
“The most powerful people in this country will not have immunity and they will not put in place a system that will exclude them from the things they like to do.”
It is possible that, given regional differences in the rate of infection and its distribution in the population, only a very small number of people in certain regions are actually eligible for a certificate of immunity. And the concept is perhaps more convincing now, as the public eagerly awaits a vaccine.
But once developed, O’Neil predicts that the benefits of any immunity certificate will vanish. However, the infrastructure put in place to track it would likely continue to live.
“I fear it is as if we are welcoming our algorithmic overlords into our lives in order to deal with this threat to public health,” she said. “And then we’ll be stuck with them. “