The House

Immunity passes could be an 'interim measure' on the way to reopening society, physician says

Testing Canadians for immunity to the novel coronavirus — and issuing passes to those immune to the disease — could be a stepping stone to fully reopening the country’s economy, an Ottawa-area physician says.

Immunity testing could get Canadians back to work, but it might come at a price

As provinces hash out their plans to reopen their economies after a month-long COVID-19 shutdown, one Ottawa physician is working on a digital immunity identification system he says will help Canada return to normalcy in the absence of a vaccine. (NIAID-RML/AP/The Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode48:39

Testing Canadians for immunity to the novel coronavirus — and issuing passes to those immune to the disease — could be a stepping stone to fully reopening the country's economy, an Ottawa-area physician says. 

Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an innovation adviser at the Bruyère Research Institute, is leading a national effort to arm Canadians with digital proof that shows whether they have the ability to transmit COVID-19.

"We are going to have to have proof of immunity," Wilson told CBC Radio's The House. "The best form of that will be an immunization. But as an interim measure, we are exploring the option of using natural immunity."

Immunity is measured by checking the amount of antibodies in someone's blood after they've recovered from an infection. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) says there is currently "no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection," though the UN agency plans to continue monitoring the subject.

Ottawa physician Dr. Kumanan Wilson discusses the concept of immunity passports — and their repercussions — as a stepping stone to reopening the economy in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine. 12:49

Wilson — who previously developed an app to digitize vaccination records — is hoping to partner with the federal government to launch an identification system that shows who is protected once immunity tests become available.

"This is going to allow you to return to work or potentially enter a mass gathering like a sporting event or a rock concert," Wilson said.

His proposal comes as a number of provinces work to ramp up their detection efforts, while others have announced plans to start easing restrictions put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed millions of dollars toward a new COVID-19 immunity task force Thursday, focused on developing testing and a vaccine. 

'It creates two classes of citizens'

But dividing Canadians into two categories — with one group given access to opportunities and services from which the other group is banned — comes with ethical concerns.

"It creates two classes of citizens based on biology and we know historically that's never been a very good situation," Wilson said.

That's top of mind for Christopher Parsons, a senior researcher with the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

"Will this be a situation where people who may be less advantaged in society [won't] have access to the test the same way people in more affluent parts … of Canada more broadly may have?" Parsons told The House.

Wilson said it's realistic to assume that not everyone will be granted the same access to the test.

"I expect if this is to be rolled out, it will be rolled out for front-line workers first," Wilson said. "It will be very important to know that health-care workers have some natural immunity."

Dr. Kumanan Wilson says the federal government will need to weigh the risk of creating two classes of citizens with the need to reopen the economy as safely as possible. (CBC)

Potential for falsifying immunity

Another scenario that could arise is people falsifying their immunity status in order to re-enter society, putting the health of their communities at risk.

"In fact, if you did all the right things you may not have developed natural immunity, which would then be very unfair in the perceptions of many," Wilson said.

Parsons said it will be up to governments to avoid creating a situation where people become desperate enough to fake immunity.

"How do we build social policies to ensure that people aren't tempted to cheat the applications or generate … false presentations of immunity certificates?" he said.

Government oversight necessary, Wilson says

Wilson said he believes the answer lies with strict governance and oversight, which would establish high standards for issuing immunity passports and develop accurate tests that would reduce the likelihood of false positives.

"I think this needs to be run by a government entity and not left to private entities trying to create a solution in the absence of a government one," he said.

"We're not going to be able to travel in the near future unless you have proof of immunity … it's going to be for every border crossing."

Ideally, Wilson said, he would like to see WHO take the helm, creating international guidelines to fast-track travel across all jurisdictions.

But having the federal government take on such a system to manage consistency between the provinces would be the next best thing, he said.

"This is a triple tragedy. It's obviously a tragedy on the health side, but it's also definitely a tragedy on the economic and social side," Wilson said. "Now we need to figure out what's the least restrictive measure on how [we can] control the spread of disease in a way that's least restrictive to individuals."

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