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The global coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered our lives. Billions of people have been ordered to stay home. As the world has gone into lockdown and the global economy has ground to a halt, unemployment has surged to levels not seen since the 1930s. More than 20 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance in the past month. Tens of millions more have lost their jobs around the world. Upwards of 2 million people have contracted the coronavirus and some 500,000 have recovered.
The key to fighting the pandemic and helping the global economy recover will be enabling those who have recovered from COVID-19 transition back into society until a vaccine becomes widely available, which experts estimate could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Testing to see who has the COVID-19 coronavirus and who is immune will be vital to easing containment measures and returning to an attenuated normal.
Labs are working fast to develop serological tests to detect COVID-19 antibodies that indicate immunity to the virus. The CDC, as well as authorities in the UK and Germany, plan on ordering or producing millions of these serological tests. While it is still the early days and epidemiologists are unsure of how long immunity to SARS-CoV-2 could last, experts are hopeful that it could be anywhere from 1 to 3 years.
Testing methodology will most likely evolve rapidly over the coming weeks or months as public health professionals determine the standard for immunity certification. Once widespread serological testing conducted amongst the general population begins and a standard for certification is in place, a system will be needed to identify people who have tested positive for antibodies.
One well-known epidemiologist, Larry Brilliant, has suggested using concert-style wristbands or ID cards to help identify the immune. Researchers in Germany are planning on issuing immunity certificates. In the UK, the government plans to roll out “immunity passports” to allow citizens to return to normal life. However, a novel approach to the novel coronavirus has emerged in the decentralized identity community – verifiable immunity credentials.
Here’s how it would work. First, testing providers and public health agencies issue verifiable credentials to people who test positive for antibodies according to a certification standard. Verifiable credentials are stored by individuals in digital identity wallets that they control, which can be easily downloaded on any mobile phone. Individuals can then privately share their credentials with employers or government officials with the quick scan of a QR code to prove their immunity.
Digital identity wallets, along with verifiable credentials, would make it possible to quickly verify immunity while preserving individual privacy. This will allow people who have recovered from the virus to safely return to work and be exempted from lockdown restrictions, which will be critical for the workers on the front lines of the crisis who are needed at hospitals and other essential businesses to help fight the virus and keep the economy up and running.
Digital immunity credentials provide a number of benefits over physical documentation. Unlike paper docs or certificates, verifiable credentials can not be forged, transferred, or tampered with. Digital verification of test results would reduce administrative overhead and bureaucratic hurdles, making it cheap and easy to issue and verify immunity credentials at scale. Contactless sharing and verification would reduce transmission risk by removing the need for in-person verification or physical transfer of documents.
Issuing verified immunity credentials to those who are immune would help people quickly find new jobs by being able to share their immunity credentials directly with employers or through job marketplaces. Facilitating a safe transition for workers out of lockdown and reintegration back into post-pandemic society will help alleviate financial hardship and boost economic recovery.
An open-source verifiable credential, based on the W3C industry standard, would be interoperable between decentralized identity wallets, with an array of options available to anyone with a phone. Workers would maintain full control and ownership of their test result and immunity certificate, preserving privacy while providing cryptographic proof of authenticity.
A number of identity providers are working on COVID-19 credentials. Bloom, a leading decentralized identity platform, has defined a VIC designed to provide flexibility and balance between informative medical results and patient privacy. More than 60 organizations have teamed up to form the Covid Credential Initiative (CCI) to deploy verifiable credential solutions to help stop the spread of COVID-19. And the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF) is forming a working group to collaborate on verifiable credential guidelines and interoperability.
In order to make verified immunity credentials a reality, identity providers will need to focus on engaging diagnostic labs and public health organizations to serve as trusted authorities for issuing credentials, as well as employers and other entities interested in screening participants. With the right cross-sector collaboration, digital identity holds the potential to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and facilitate a safe return to normal.
Connor Hays is senior researcher for Bloom, where he writes on the nexus of digital identity, privacy, and economics.
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