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Should those with antibodies get a digital pass to go back to work?

MIT scientist’s plan raises questions about discrimination, lack of in-depth knowledge on coronavirus

An MIT scientist's plan for digital immunity certificates would depend on reliable antibody testing, but some researchers say not enough is known yet about the value of antibodies produced after exposure to the coronavirus.
An MIT scientist's plan for digital immunity certificates would depend on reliable antibody testing, but some researchers say not enough is known yet about the value of antibodies produced after exposure to the coronavirus.Claudio Furlan/LaPresse/Associated Press

In the race for an all-clear signal, Alex Pentland proposes a solution: a kind of digital passport that shows the carrier poses no risk of spreading COVID-19 and can safely resume normal life, including returning to work.

Pentland is an eminent computer scientist, a cofounder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a paper published this week, he proposed a digital identity system that would disclose whether a person has blood that contains COVID antibodies and is therefore at little risk of becoming infected or infecting others.

The idea isn’t new. In Germany, for example, researchers who are developing widespread antibody testing are floating the idea of issuing “immunity certificates” to people who have recovered from COVID-19 and test positive for antibodies, which would allow them free movement. In the United States, the White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said the use of such certificates is possible here.

But for such a system to be trusted in the United States, Pentland said, it cannot have the hands of the government on it.

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"The moment you make a national card,” Pentland said, "you’ve just given in to Big Brother.”

Instead, each citizen could choose to have the data stored with some trusted organization, such as the person’s bank or hospital, he said.

But as with so many other proposals to get the economy going again, Pentland’s idea runs into a familiar roadblock: a lack of testing. Moreover, infectious disease scientists warn that the proposal couldn’t be implemented successfully until far more is known about how COVID antibodies work.

Pentland’s digital identity system would amount to a get-out-of-quarantine card, allowing those with the antibodies to quickly return to work in relatively high-risk jobs as businesses reopen. A person could prove that he or she tested positive for COVID antibodies by displaying a barcode stored in a password-protected smartphone app. Or it could be printed out on paper using a computer, a modern twist on the old-fashioned vaccination card.

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When scanned, the barcode would reveal only that the person’s blood contained COVID-fighting antibodies — not any personal information, such as name and address.

A worker could instantly provide this information to an employer, such as a restaurant owner. Pentland noted that since COVID-19 has hit low-income and minority communities especially hard, their neighborhoods will have relatively large numbers of people with COVID antibodies. He said his system would give people in such communities an advantage in returning to work or finding new jobs.

“They’re getting a preference there,” Pentland said, "which is exactly the right people to give preference to.”

Pentland also suggested that the federal government might offer incentives, such as tax breaks, to encourage the hiring of people with COVID antibodies.

Donald Thea, a professor of public health at Boston University, said Pentland’s plan would give people an easy way to prove to employers that they had overcome a COVID infection, and were therefore at reduced risk of contracting or spreading the disease.

“Some details need to be worked out," Thea said. "I think theoretically it makes a lot of sense. It would set a lot of people’s minds at ease.”

But Pentland’s proposal was met with skepticism by Lee Gehrke, a Harvard Medical School microbiologist and cofounder of E25Bio, a company that’s developing a COVID antibody test. Gehrke said scientists don’t yet know whether the antibodies that confer immunity will protect a person for life, or for just a few months.

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Gehrke also said humans produce more than one kind of antibody in response to the virus, including some that don’t confer immunity. Some of the current tests merely confirm that antibodies are present but don’t reveal whether they’re the right kind, he said.

“They will say yes or no. We have antibodies. The problem with that is that’s not enough information," Gehrke said. ”We don’t know yet whether those are quote ‘good’ antibodies and how long they’re going to last.”

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, agreed that too little is known about COVID antibodies. She also warned that any digital passport such as the one proposed by Pentland could open the door to a new kind of discrimination.

“For example: You can’t come in this store or use this service unless you have antibodies,” Rasmussen said. “We won’t hire you unless you have antibodies. You are only eligible for health insurance if you have antibodies. You have different eligibility for unemployment benefits or COVID relief if you have antibodies.”

While Pentland agreed far more needs to be known about COVID antibodies, he noted that efforts to prevent the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and influenza are also imperfect. He hopes his plan can speed up an economic recovery while minimizing the risk of infection.

“It’s not perfect,” he said, "but it’s a lot better than nothing.”

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.