Technologists building blockchain-based tools for digital personal identity information are collaborating on an “immunity passport” to help stop the spread of COVID-19 without compromising the privacy of users. So, what is an immunity passport? An immunity passport is an internationally recognized health certificate which tells that the holder has developed immunity against the virus, either by recovering from an infection or by getting vaccinated. It helps keep track of individuals who are immune to the virus and are not contagious, thus creating the rationale for such folks to be able to get back into the workforce without posing a risk.
The immunity passport would also then be able to track herd immunity. Herd immunity happens when enough people in a community become immune to an infectious disease that it stops the disease from spreading. Bill Gates has also mentioned issuing digital certificates to show who have recovered or have received a vaccine can help build herd immunity. Some countries like the UK and Germany are considering issuing immunity passports to their citizens who have recovered from COVID-19.
For COVID-19, the idea is still in its early stage and the World Health Organization recommends countries to be careful in issuing “immunity passports” as there is still no conclusive evidence that people will be protected from a second coronavirus infection. Therefore, before immunity passports could be issued, the coronavirus antibody tests themselves will need to go through testing to prove that they can effectively give correct results.
If coronavirus immunity tests and vaccines become available and concrete, blockchain technology would play an important role in immunity passports. One of the major concerns with identity documents is the privacy of the data. This personal identity information of the citizens can be misused. There’s this “Big Brother” implication associated with immunity passports. The key to blockchain technology is that it empowers and protects the privacy of its users. The access to data is only available to the individual and the organization that provides a credential like a hospital that tests the citizens for immunity. As an individual, you can then choose with whom to share that data. The information stored in the blockchain decentralized network is encrypted and hack-proof.
The COVID-19 Credentials Initiative (CCI) is working on a blockchain-based digital certificate, using the recently approved World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Verifiable Credentials standard. Their mission is to develop “immunity passports” and enable society to return to ‘normal’ in a controlled, measurable, and privacy-preserving way. By providing immunity proof, individuals will be able to begin participating in everyday life again. CCI is a collaborative effort between more than 60 organizations which includes Evernym, ID2020, uPort, Dutch research organization TNO, Microsoft, ConsenSys Health and Luxoft. Blockchain is secure and hence, will replace any paper certificates or documentation eliminating the need for the holders to physically go back-and-forth between the issuer and the verifier. The passport holder would be in the centre of the system. The holders would also have the power of choosing what to share and with whom to share it. The technology promises to instil a higher level of trust between the credential’s issuer, the credential’s holder and the verifier.
If implemented, how might this immunity passport work? The testers (doctors, nurses) who have been previously authorized by official health authorities can issue and register digital immunity certificates on a blockchain rather than a physical card. Based on their identity document number and tests, the immune people will receive a secure digital ID represented by a QR code which can be either printed out or sent to their mobile phones. By scanning this QR code, a request is sent to the blockchain that returns the immunity status, the identity document number, the tester who issued the certificate, the test and the validity date of the test. The person who scans the code can now compare the identity document number and can be sure that the certificate is valid and genuine. For example, employees of a health care institution who are immune may need less protection than others; people who are immune can work more confidently together; airlines might seat immune (and non-contagious) persons beside persons of whom the immunity status is unknown. This will build herd immunity in a community.
Immunity passport has the potential to curb and reduce the spread of coronavirus by helping recovered patients get back to the workforce. But, it is still early to bank on the idea because it still depends on the effectiveness of corona tests to identify immune patients and the ongoing fear of reinfection. Implementing immunity passports would be a herculean task - requiring not only huge investment but the participation of various stakeholders around the world. Even if implemented, the immunity passport might exclude the bottom of the pyramid socio-economic group. Only privileged few might be allowed to go out. As for the technology, the value proposition of the immunity passports could be enhanced by using AI and the blockchain which can help in tracing the infected yet keeping their personal identification information private. Therefore, making this idea, even if not implemented on a large scale, is a good demonstration of the capabilities of the blockchain.
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