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Germany: Ethics Council Advises against COVID-19 Immunity Passports

(Sept. 30, 2020) On September 22, 2020, the German Ethics Council released an opinion unanimously advising against COVID-19 immunity passports for the time being due to the “many uncertainties that still exist regarding immunity against the novel coronavirus.” The Ethics Council had been asked by the German federal minister of health to issue an opinion on the ethical requirements and implications of immunity passports. “Immunity passports” have been suggested as a way to prove that persons have antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19. They would enable such individuals to travel or return to work under the assumption that they are protected from a second infection.

Recommendations in Case Uncertainties Are Resolved

Members of the Ethics Council have expressed two different views regarding immunity passports. Half of the members argue that, should the uncertainties regarding immunity against COVID-19 be resolved in the future, immunity passports should be introduced under certain conditions and in a step-by-step process that would at least initially be limited to specific contexts or areas. At the same time, these members maintain that the immunity passport should, in general, not automatically replace other public health measures; rather, such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. Consequences for particularly vulnerable groups must be taken into account. Immunity passports should be used in addition to other public health measures to avoid discrimination, in the opinion of these members. Furthermore, they warn against using proven immunity to force people into circumstances that pose a risk to their health or life, and state that improper pressure from employers and health insurance providers must be countered. Antibody tests that allow the issuance of an immunity passport must be of high quality, and the validity of immunity passports must be limited to take into account advances in scientific research. Likewise, laws regulating immunity passports should be regularly reviewed and revised. (Opinion at 47, para. A2; 48; 49, paras. A4–A10.)

The other half of the members advise against the use of immunity passports even if the uncertainties regarding immunity are resolved, because they believe this will lead to a two-tier society. (At 40, para. 3.2.3.) They state that instead of issuing immunity passports, the current successful pandemic protection strategies of the federal government and the German states should be continued and adjusted accordingly to reinstate individual freedoms and rights. They recommend, in particular,

  • expanding fast and free testing;
  • recording the chain of infection and quarantining infected individuals and their contact persons;
  • restructuring institutions where the infection risk is high, such as facilities for accommodating asylum seekers and slaughterhouses;
  • tightening pandemic protection measures on a regional level or as warranted when infection numbers rise;
  • systematically reviewing the efficacy of protection measures;
  • increasing the use of the Corona Warning App;
  • expanding research on antibody tests;
  • providing comprehensive information on the potential consequences of not following public health advice;
  • prohibiting privately issued immunity passports; and
  • amending the Protection against Infections Act to allow relatives and certain other people who have a doctor’s certificate proving that they are immune to SARS-CoV-2 to have contact with particularly vulnerable people. (At 51; 52, para. 4.3.)

Further Joint Recommendations

The Ethics Council also recommends that the public be comprehensively informed about how behavior that disregards public health advice may have serious health consequences for themselves and others. Such information should be coupled with an appeal to think about the common good and their fellow human beings. In addition, the council advises that the public be informed about the questionable accuracy and reliability of antibody tests—for example, through the Federal Center for Health Education—and proposes a stricter regulation of over-the-counter antibody tests. (At 46, para. 4.1, nos. 2, 4.)

Lastly, the council recommends stepping up targeted and coordinated research on the infectious and immunological characteristics of the novel coronavirus by supporting and promoting medical research. This will allow a better understanding of the development, duration, and progress of immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. (At 46, para. 4.1, no. 3.)