Brave new world of immunity

It's spring 2021. You have just sat through an hour-long interview for your dream job. The vibe is good, and you're pretty sure you crushed it. Yes, you have a work authorization, and of course you're willing to move to the city of X to take the gig. But before you walk out, your future boss asks one last question: "Do you have your COVID-19 immunity certificate?"

You don't, because the antibody test you took months ago turned up negative.

"Oh," she says, "well, I'm very sorry but, in that case, we can't move forward with your application. A shame, but do keep in touch and let us know when you have an immunity certification, ok?"


As societies around the world move cautiously towards reopening their economies without the benefit of a coronavirus vaccine that confers widespread immunity, dystopian scenes like this one aren't that far-fetched. Chile has already issued the world's first "immunity card." Governments in France, the UK, and the city of Los Angeles have floated the idea too.

If businesses are concerned about the health and economic impacts of the disease spreading in the workplace — or to clients and customers — bosses will be keenly interested to know if employees have immunity to COVID-19. That opens up several important problems.

We don't know enough about immunity. The WHO has warned that there still isn't enough evidence that people who have had COVID-19 develop long-lasting immunity to it. There may be more evidence in the coming months as experts monitor antibodies in people who have recovered, but concern about short-lived or lapsed immunity will become a challenge for any certificate system.

Oversight and responsibility. Developing a credible and standardized proof of immunity is not only an immense healthcare challenge, but also a political one. Who issues them and under what privacy conditions? A national immunity "passport" is potentially an option for countries with centralized political systems and high levels of trust in government. But it's hard to imagine something like that working in the US, for example, where opposition even to a national ID card has always been strong, from groups on both the left and right concerned about privacy and government overreach.

The Brave New World problem. Just as the world of Aldous Huxley's famous novel divided people into different, color-coded professional castes, a situation where some people have COVID immunity certificates and others don't could quickly split the labor force into people who can easily find jobs and those who can't.

There's a historical precedent for this: in 19th century New Orleans, the yellow fever immunity card requirements quickly amplified class and racial divides. Back here in the 21st century, with unemployment rates soaring around the world as a result of lockdowns, anything that makes it harder for people to find work is going to become politically contentious, and fast.

Perverse incentives. Lastly, given the high stakes of proving immunity, will non-immune people try to counterfeit certificates, endangering their future co-workers and customers? Worse, will people feel pressured to contract the virus just to develop the immunity that will help them find a job?

Civil rights activist Janet Murguía joins the 'That Made All the Difference' podcast to discuss her upbringing as the daughter of immigrant parents and how that experience informs her life's work advocating for Hispanic-Latino civil rights and battling systemic inequality.

Listen now.

"Go ahead, take it," President Putin says to you.

"Take what?" you ask.

"This Covid vaccine," he continues, turning a small syringe over in his hands. "It's safe. Trust me. We… tested it on my daughter."

Would you do it? Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that a lot of people will say yes. On Tuesday he announced that Russia has become the first country to register a COVID-19 vaccine, and that mass vaccinations will begin there in October.

More Show less

20.4: The UK economy is now officially in a recession for the first time in 11 years, after British economic growth plunged by 20.4 percent quarter-on-quarter from April to June 2020. The quarterly decline — attributed to the economic crisis fueled by the coronavirus pandemic ­— is double that of the US and second only to Spain's in Europe.

More Show less

Vietnam vs coronavirus (round 2): After going three months with no local transmissions of COVID-19, Vietnam is worried about a resurgence of the disease after a recent outbreak in the coastal city of Da Nang that has already spread to 11 other locations throughout the country. Authorities in Vietnam — widely considered a global success story in handling the pandemic thanks to its aggressive testing, contact-tracing and quarantines — believe the Da Nang outbreak is tied to an influx of domestic tourism there after lockdown restrictions were recently eased by the government. As a precaution, they have converted a 1,000-seat Da Nang sports stadium into a field hospital to treat the sick in case local hospitals become overwhelmed. More than 1,000 medical personnel, assisted by Cuban doctors, have been sent there to screen residents, and the capital Hanoi plans to test 72,000 people who recently returned from Da Nang. Will Vietnam prevail again in its second battle against COVID-19?

More Show less

"First off you have to say, it's not just one epidemic. There are many outbreaks. All epidemiology is local, just like politics," former CDC director Dr. Frieden told Ian Bremmer. He expressed concerns that, although COVID-19 is relatively under control in the Northeast, outbreaks continue to rage across the South and Southwest. The real failure, Frieden argues, is at the federal level where nearly six months into a pandemic Washington still lacks the data required to understand the virus' spread, let alone control it.