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'Immunity passports' for safe travel? medical experts say it's too soon

The belief is people who have recovered from COVID-19 are safe to fly because they’re safe from re-infection.

NEW ORLEANS — Airlines have been hit hard by COVID-19 and are working to bring in business safely. The Delta Airlines CEO recently said an ‘Immunity Passport’ may be the answer. It’s an idea other countries like the U.K., Chile and Germany are looking at. However, it’s a concept that’s hitting a lot of turbulence.

A passport isn’t anything new, however, as airlines try and get their business to take off there’s talk surrounding ‘Immunity Passports.’

The idea is relatively simple. The document, which a traveler would show before boarding, states they’ve recovered from COVID-19. It falls under the belief they’d be safe to fly because they’re safe from re-infection. However, medical experts say not so fast.

“One of the issues with this virus that makes it difficult to deal with, is there’s so much asymptomatic carriage,” said LSU Health Infectious Disease Director, Julio Figueroa.

Figueroa says there’s still much to learn with COVID-19, including what immunity looks like after infection.

“Let's say you get the antibody test today, and you’re positive. And let's say hypothetically, we knew that it was a good antibody, and it took care of your virus,” he said. “We don’t know if that’ll last for a week, month, six months, a year, the rest of your life, we don’t know.”

Tulane’s Adult Infectious Diseases Chief, David Mushatt, agrees. He says if these Immunity Passports are used, the focus has to be on testing.

“There is always the possibility of what are called false positive,” he said. “In other words you may have an antibody test that reads positive, but in fact, it could be an antibody that your body made against a similar virus. And if that’s the case then it would be a false reassurance for you. If we’re going to do this kind of thing we need to be pretty darn sure that our antibody tests are really accurate.”

Which looking ahead, is possible.

“I’m confidently optimistic these tests will achieve that capacity with time,” said Mushatt.

“I’m a little optimistic we will definitely know more about what’s going on in the next few months and whether or not we can implement an immune passport or something like that,” said Figueroa.

However, until then, medical experts urge travelers and anyone out and about to be cautious.

“For right now, because of the uncertainty,” Mushatt says. “Even if you had COVID-19, it’s still best to assume you could get re-infected.”

The World Health Organization came out with a statement saying Immunity Passports may increase the risk of infection, because people may assume they won't get sick again and stop taking precautionary measures.

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