COVID-19 immunity certificates: What could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out, according to a leading bioethicist and Stanford law professor.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
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Brian Cooley
2 min read
COVID-19 blood sample
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As US residents and businesses itch for a return to normalcy in the coronavirus outbreak, the concept of immunity certificates that indicate who is safe to go back to normal life is a tantalizing concept. The idea has been floated in several European countries, but there's still the question of how it would work with American laws and sensibilities.

"Sure, it's very attractive," says Henry T. Greely, professor at Stanford Law School and Director of its Center for Law and Biosciences. "But we don't know if there is immunity, how powerful it is, or how long it lasts. Before we know all that, none of this makes sense."

Watch this: How COVID-19 immunity certificates might fail

Assuming those fundamental questions can be answered by medical science in a timely fashion, then the tricky part begins. 

"How long are we going to put up with a world where some people can do things and others can't solely because of the accident of who got sick?" asks Greely of a certificate-driven future. "There's no sense of merit there, it's blind luck." 

If government-administered immunity certificates are created, Greely anticipates feasible constitutional challenges. "If the government said you cannot have a certain kind of job unless you have an immunity certificate, people would raise issues under the constitution's due process and equal protection clauses, though its not clear to me that those arguments would be winners."

Professor Henry T. Greely

Professor Henry T. Greely of Stanford Law School is also Director of its Center for Law and the Biosciences.

Stanford University

Even if immunity certificates emerged as a private service, like commercial background checks, Greely is concerned that they might encourage people to make reckless decisions to regain a normal life. "It does set up a perverse incentive. I'm old enough to remember when parents took their kids to chickenpox parties or measles parties" to intentionally expose their child to an infected child to attain immunity. 

Such ideas seem darkly laughable today, but the incentive to attain demonstrable COVID-19 immunity would be much stronger than attaining childhood chickenpox immunity: Many breadwinners have been sidelined by shutdowns predicated on not knowing who can safely go to work.

Professor Greely has many more insights into this controversial topic. Watch my full interview with him above to hear them all.


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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.