The Washington Post opinion page is not the first to suggest it, but the frequency is becoming annoying. Two representatives of Vital Strategies, Thomas Frieden and Aaron Schwid, penned an editorial asserting that, in order to reopen the economy safely, we need “immunity passports.” In other words, to participate in society at large, you will require some proof of immunity to COVID-19—specifically, proof of vaccination.
The authors suggest a digital proof of vaccination—which is exceptionally intrusive but likely makes the Chinese Communist Party smile. Their primary assertion is not even hidden. We will have a two-tiered society based on whether or not you are willing to be vaccinated using a brand new technology that has been researched for some time but never successfully deployed: (emphasis mine):
So as more and more people are vaccinated, it’s time to carefully design a system of “immunity passports.”
These passports would serve as a form of proof of immunity, allowing people who have immunity to engage in some activities others cannot. That could make it possible to ratchet down protective measures, such as stay-at-home orders and business closures, without increasing health risks. A venue could finally reopen to some performers, fans and staff. Visitors could return more freely to nursing homes and prisons. International travel could increase.
The authors admit they do not have enough information to know whether any of this is necessary. As one who regularly reads the research on COVID-19, I find their assertions quite surprising. There is much that has been learned in the last ten months. Unfortunately, much of the good news is under-reported.
A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) demonstrated that asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission within a household is effectively zero. This was also the finding in Wuhan, China, in a study that tested 10 million people. It found 300 asymptomatic cases and determined that no close contacts had tested positive. Dr. Fauci stated that this was highly unlikely in January of 2020.
The highest rates of transmission in the JAMA study were between spouses, with an attack rate of nearly 4 in 10. Other household members had a risk of about 2 in 10. This mirrored New York City’s findings during the early pandemic’s height when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that 66% of new hospital patients with COVID-19 had been sheltering at home.
Second, emerging research on recovered patients shows a robust, long-term immune response. This could be expected as researchers have found long term immune system reactivity to SARS 17 years after infection. As the New York Times reported in November, according to multiple studies:
These studies “are all by and large painting the same picture, which is that once you get past those first few critical weeks, the rest of the response looks pretty conventional,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona.
So, our bodies respond to COVID-19 as they do to any number of viruses in our midst that we contract repeatedly and regularly, but that rarely make us ill. It would be more surprising if they didn’t. Yet Frieden and Schwid are suggesting that everyone, even recovered patients, needs a secure digital passport indicating they have been vaccinated. In light of the emerging research, this makes absolutely no sense.
To be clear, I am neither an anti-vaxxer nor a science denier. However, I am opposed to widespread vaccination with brand-new technology for a virus that poses a near-zero risk for those under 40—especially the required vaccination of children, who, when they are healthy, rarely contract the virus at all.
Would I encourage an elderly relative or friend to get the vaccine? One with a pre-existing condition linked to worse outcomes? Absolutely. The decision to get vaccinated should be determined by the evaluation of risks and benefits between a patient and her doctor, just as any treatment should be. The simple fact is that we know more about COVID-19 after 10 months than we do about this particular vaccine. An mRNA vaccine has never been given to the public before, so caution is warranted. It would not be the first time a rush to vaccinate had unintended consequences in a high-stakes political environment.
A flu vaccine deployed in 1976 under a program to vaccinate 80% of Americans in anticipation of a pandemic resulted in several hundred developing Guillain-Barre syndrome. That vaccine used existing technology. The entire predicted pandemic was also confused with an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
Based on research from September 2020, our COVID-19 PCR tests are oversensitive, using a cycle threshold of 37-40. Again, according to the New York Times analysis, only about 10% of COVID-19 positive tests were likely capable of causing infection or being transmitted. And according to CDC data, there is plenty of reason to question how COVID-19 deaths are being recorded. There is so much noise in the numbers shared with the public that it is easy to read them as politically motivated. The history of 1976 is not repeating itself, but it surely has the potential to rhyme.
The authors close with this:
As vaccination is rolled out and we learn more about immunity after natural infection, providing the option of an immunity passport to those who choose to receive one can increase freedom of movement for passport holders and accelerate broader social and economic recovery. As universal vaccination becomes available, passports will help everyone, not just the lucky few, move from fear to freedom.
Perhaps Frieden and Schwid should get out more. Jeffrey Tucker from the American Institute for Economic Research visited my home state of Georgia recently, which has been open since April 30, 2020. Following his visit, he noted:
In Georgia you see actual happiness: smiles on faces, quick steps, and light conversations about something other than the virus. The look and feel of the place, with bustling commercial districts and holiday joy everywhere, absolutely startled me. Just being around this scene for a few days lifted my own spirits immeasurably.
Additionally, Tucker got to eat in restaurants and sit at a bar like a “normal person,” and noted that our unemployment rate is well below the national average. Not everyone is living in fear. Perhaps our public Health Experts™ and our betters at Vital Strategies should take a clue from southern governors and trust the citizens. As Tucker observed:
People are grateful to be living in a state where freedom matters, where you can earn a living, where you can make choices about the level of risk you want, where government more or less respects the people’s rights and intelligence. And if you doubt that this is the right path, the evidence is right there for anyone willing to look.