What do immunity passports and vaccination certificates mean for COVID-19 restrictions?

Here’s why continuing to physically distance and wear masks is vital until we can be sure how long vaccine-acquired immunity lasts.

  • 11 December 2020
  • 3 min read
Photo by Andrew "Donovan" Valdivia on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew "Donovan" Valdivia on Unsplash


An immunity passport is an official document that certifies “an individual has been infected and is purportedly immune to SARS-CoV-2.” In principle, this can then give an individual more freedom to travel and socialise, allowing people to enter a country if they can provide evidence that they have already recovered from COVID-19.

The theory is that by providing proof of a positive and then a negative test, the person will have had the disease and is expected to have developed antibodies or other forms of immune memory to protect them from getting ill again.

Hungary has introduced a policy allowing people to enter the country if they can provide evidence that they have already recovered from COVID-19. Iceland is planning on introducing a similar policy that will allow people who have already had COVID-19 to be exempt from the nationwide mask mandate. This raises difficult questions as some people with underlying health conditions, including autism, panic disorders and breathing difficulties, are already exempt from wearing a mask but have not necessarily recovered from infection or have any immunity to it.

In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned against the use of immunity passports saying: “there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate’.” It recently confirmed that this position has not changed.

WHO also suggested that immunity passports could in fact increase the risks of continued transmission, because those carrying one would ignore public health advice about physically distancing. 

Immunity passports also raise ethical issues due to concerns that documentation could be fraudulently reproduced, and could even incentivise otherwise healthy people to “willfully seek out infection” so they could enjoy more freedom.  

What about for people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine?

Proof of vaccination has long been required before travelling to some countries or for people who work in certain jobs. So, could proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine mean people should be exempt from public health guidelines? Even though results from clinical trials suggest the vaccines are highly effective at preventing you from getting seriously ill, there are still questions around how effective they are at curbing the spread of the virus. 

Vaccinated people could still be able to spread the virus and put others at risk, so experts have stressed the importance of continuing to physically distance and wear masks. 

Dr. Mark Kortepeter, a physician and biodefense expert at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, has warned that “taking your mask off too early is like playing Russian roulette, depending on who you are hanging out with and what activities you are doing.” 

Until we know to what extent vaccines prevent not just disease but asymptomatic transmission, and how long vaccine-acquired immunity lasts, it is vital to keep following public health guidelines to flatten the curve and protect those around you.