close up of a COVID-19 spike

'Immunity passport' might be our ticket back to normal

The fantastic news about the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines has led many to ask when things will return to normal.

Some public health officials state a rapid normalization would require people to carry documentation of prior infection or vaccination against the virus to participate in activities such as cruises, flying and attendance at large sports or concert events. Such documentation, called an “immunity passport,” would speed the return to normal while still protecting the population at risk. You may wonder if immunity passports are needed.

COVID-19 is going to remain a threat for years to come. The reality is that large numbers of people around the globe will not have access to a vaccine. Others with access to the vaccine, will choose not to receive it. Because of low vaccination rates, the virus will continue to circulate and be repeatedly reintroduced into regions without the virus.

The unvaccinated will remain at risk. The global reach of this virus has been repeatedly demonstrated. New Zealand through testing, tracking and quarantine, eliminated the disease from their country only to have new cases arise as soon as quarantine procedures lapsed.

It’s going to take months to vaccinate the estimated 150 million people in the United States that will choose to be vaccinated. Each person will need to receive two doses about a month apart. Vaccination of children will follow adults, but vaccine testing in this age group has barely begun.

The need to protect people with masks, distancing and lockdowns is going to continue for some time. Immunity passports would allow vaccinated individuals to resume normal activities such as dining and gym workouts without requiring special protective measures.

The vaccines are upwards of 95 percent effective. On the flip side, that means one in 20 vaccinated individuals will not be protected. It will take years to achieve herd immunity through a combination of vaccination and natural infection.

Immunity passports protect those individuals where the “vaccine did not take” by creating an immune “herd” around them. It would be safe to go to a movie, if the other theater attendees have an immunity passport.

Could immunity passports become a reality? In some European municipalities, a recent negative SARS-CoV-2 test is required in a manner similar to an immunity passport. People must show their negative test results to go to work or even enter a store.

Closer to home, Massachusetts requires visitors to quarantine 14 days if they cannot demonstrate a negative test result in the 72 hours before entering the state. A better example, is the yellow fever vaccination requirement to enter countries where the virus could become established to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

Immunity passports could speed us along the road back to normal while protecting those at risk of COVID-19. Chances are that we will see immunity passports used but the circumstances are unclear. Certainly, their use will encourage people to get vaccinated.

Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch. For questions about vaccines, email