Madrid’s COVID immunity cards plan faces backlash

People wearing protective face masks sit at the Las Cruces park amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain

Health experts, citizens’ rights groups and lawmakers lined up on Wednesday to criticise plans by Madrid authorities to give immunity passports to people who test positive for coronavirus antibodies.

Dubbed ‘COVID cards’ by regional government leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who wants to introduce them as a pilot project in September, they would identify holders as coronavirus-free, granting them access to high-risk infection zones including gyms, museums and bars.

“The key is letting people who are not infectious continue to live a normal life and focusing the precautions on the vulnerable,” Ayuso said on Tuesday. “We are asking for the card to be studied so we can identify who cannot infect or be infected right now.”

However, at a time when countries are struggling to strike a balance between fighting the virus and respecting civil liberties, experts have questioned the scientific validity of such a system and say it could infringe on privacy rights.

“A positive COVID-19 antibody result does not necessarily mean you have ‘functional’ antibodies that will protect you from another infection,” Liverpool University epidemiologist Raquel Medialdea tweeted.

The World Health Organisation has discouraged the use of immunity passports on those grounds, and a large Spanish study into immunity showed 14% of participants with antibodies had lost them when tested again three months later.

The country has been gripped by a surge in new infections with 13,116 diagnosed in the last seven days, prompting some other regions to re-introduce curbs on movement and gatherings, and the UK government to impose a quarantine on returnees from Spain.

Madrid, which bore the brunt of the virus’s early April peak but has since managed to keep a lid on new infections, is the first Spanish region to consider a card system.

Ruben Sanchez, a spokesman for the FACUA consumer-rights group called the idea “ridiculous”, saying it would violate data-protection laws by obliging the bearer to hand over sensitive medical information.

Iñigo Errejon, leader of the left-wing Mas Madrid party, said Ayuso had failed to hire sufficient virus trackers and been slow to introduce mandatory mask use. He also criticised the card scheme, whose name Rocio Monasterio, a lawmaker with the far-right Vox party, said called to mind post-war ration books.

There was some support for Ayuso amid all the criticism.

“An attempt at tracking and controlling the virus doesn’t seem bad to me,” Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the northern Galicia region, told RNE radio.

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