The route out of lockdown has become a groundhog day in which the same ideas keep on coming round again, with unnerving regularity: test, track and trace, vaccine, semi-permanent social distancing and so on. Today it is the turn of another hoary old chestnut: immunity passports. Announcing that 5 per cent of the country, and 17 per cent of Londoners, have already been infected with the virus, Matt Hancock suggested that following the distribution of the millions of antibody tests that have been ordered from Swiss pharma giant Roche, it will be possible to consider ‘systems of certification’ which allow some of the people who have already recovered from Covid-19 to resume more normal lives. He did not give further details.
Immunity passports were a popular idea in early April – and not just in Britain. Germany toyed with them, too. But they fell from failure after the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a plea on 25 April for countries not to pursue immunity passports. There was no evidence, it said, that being infected with Sars-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, conferred any immunity whatsoever from further infection. Maybe not, but neither is there any evidence that infection doesn’t provide immunity from a second bout of the disease. Reported cases of reinfection from China and South Korea turned out to be nothing of the sort: it was simply that tests had picked up fragments of old virus, giving the impression that people had been reinfected after recovering from the disease. There simply isn’t any proof of lasting immunity either way.
Following the WHO’s plea, Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance suggested that it would very unlikely if the infection did not provide some form of immunity. Most viruses provoke in us some lasting immunity. Then again, Rupert Beale of the Crick Institute argues in this week’s magazine that coronaviruses are different, saying that they have 'evolved to evade immunity' and that they 'possess all sorts of unknown weaponry that dampens down our immune response'.
The coronaviruses which cause the common cold have been hugely successful for this reason: they can keep on infecting us throughout life.
But then if infection with Sars-CoV-2 doesn’t provide us with immunity from further infection, why should a vaccine? That might be another hiding to nothing. We don’t, after all, have a vaccine for the common cold – in spite of 43 years of research into one at the now-defunct Common Cold Research Unit in Wiltshire between 1946 and 1989.
There is a possibility that Sars-CoV-2 will just become endemic, possibly evolving into a more benign infection, rather like those that cause the common cold. That would be an alternative route out of lockdown. It might even be the most likely route. But that has not yet emerged as official government policy. We can only hope that it is the policy of the virus itself – it would certainly make sense from the virus’ point of view as it would maximise its chances of spreading as far and wide as possible.