Australian health experts split on 'immunity passport' as new coronavirus test begins development

A woman crosses the usually busy intersection of Market Street and Sussex Street in the CBD in Sydney, Thursday, 2 April, 2020. Source: AAP

Australian researchers are developing a new test to determine who has immunity to the coronavirus, giving renewed hope for the prospect of a wider "immunity passport".

Australian researchers are working on a test that many hope will not only determine who is fit to go back to work after contracting coronavirus but also test the effectiveness of a vaccine.

On Monday, researchers from Monash University and Alfred Health announced they were developing a test to determine who had immunity to COVID-19 and those who were likely to experience severe symptoms.

The test, similar to that for influenza, looks at memory B lymphocytes, which are immune system cells that make antibodies to fight pathogens such as viruses.

"It can say if someone has had it, when someone has had it and if they’re protected against further infections," lead researcher Menno van Zelm, from Monash University's Central Clinical School, told SBS News.

There are hopes the test, which is expected to be finalised within months, could allow healthcare workers who have contracted the coronavirus to return to the front lines as soon as possible after developing immunity. 

It has also given renewed hope for the prospect of a wider "immunity passport", which would see those who are unable to catch the virus again return to normality, as has been proposed by researchers in Europe.

Researchers in Germany have already started a study into how many people are immune to COVID-19, paving the way for authorities to eventually issue passes to people who can return to work, while Britain's health minister has flagged the possibility of a "health certificate".

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Tony Bartone.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Tony Bartone.

The idea of issuing a document to those recovered from and immune to the virus is also being considered in Italy.

But experts remain split on whether a similar policy could work in Australia. 

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty said before an "immunity passport" could be considered, Australia needed to have two things: widespread community infection and a robust antibody test that could be conducted on a "big scale".

"Would it mean people would take more risks to get infected so they could get back to their normal life? That's one problem," Professor Doherty said during an Australian Academy of Science broadcast on Monday. 

"You would also only see that sort of thing introduced once you had a lot of infection throughout the community, which we are nowhere near at the moment."

As of Monday evening, close to 6,000 people had tested positive for the coronavirus in Australia.

President of the Australian Medical Association Tony Bartone said there were limitations on the use of the new test being developed, including the potential for false positives and whether it could be scaled up for the entire population.

 Matthew O'Sullivan, a specialist in infectious diseases and microbiology at Westmead Hospital.
Matthew O'Sullivan, a specialist in infectious diseases and microbiology at Westmead Hospital.
Western Sydney Local Health District

"Initially, it would probably only be of benefit to health workers wanting to return to the frontline and understanding that they are no longer exposed," he said.

It is still unclear whether people who have contracted the virus are automatically immune from catching it again - or whether the immunity has a shorter time span.

"You can't necessarily, automatically say that just because someone has a positive serology test that there's no way that they can be infected and they're definitely protected," Matthew O'Sullivan, a specialist in infectious diseases at Westmead Hospital, said.

"It's likely that it is the case, but we don't know that yet."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at

Additional reporting by Nadine Silva, Abby Dinham.

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