COVID-19: ID startups say private firms mulling health passports

  • ID startups say they are seeing interest from private firms on how in-house health passport schemes could help them get employees safely back to work.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions around the world to work from home – and dramatically reduced space for employees in the workplace. 
  • Digital ID startups Yoti and Onfido told Business Insider they had held talks with a number of businesses on developing in-house schemes. 
  • But Dr Edgar A. Whitley, an expert on the subject, has raised concerns over the practicalities of private health passports. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Digital identity startups say they have been discussing corporate immunity passport schemes with private firms, as a way to reduce the need for social distancing in the workplace and boost productivity.

In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, officials in both the US and the UK appeared curious about the potential of health or “immunity” passports to monitor infections.

These digital IDs would link a user’s identity with their COVID-19 test status, potentially allowing people who have recovered from the virus to return to work and normal life. Most solutions rely on some combination of facial recognition, ID documents like passports or driving licenses, and the distribution of unique QR codes, as well as COVID-19 test results.

But national schemes involving immunity passports have yet to materialize. One issue is that it is still unclear how long anyone remains immune to COVID-19 after contracting the disease, with a recent study from Kings College London suggesting it could be as little as two months.

But even without government backing, it appears businesses from a wide range of sectors are looking into how they might roll out their own health passport schemes. The idea is to bring employees back to work faster, and potentially reduce the need for social distancing.

Robin Tombs, CEO of ID verification startup Yoti, told Business Insider he had held talks with industry leaders from the “sports, entertainment, travel, logistics, manufacturing and healthcare” sectors.

“We’re in advanced discussions with a range of companies that want to boost their operational capacity while ensuring the safety of their staff and customers,” he said.

Husayn Kassai, CEO of rival ID startup Onfido, says he now dedicates a third of his time to working on health passports, and has set up a new team within the company to focus on the issue.

“We’ve had dozens of companies register an interest with us on this,” he told Business Insider. “There are a number of different trials and initiatives underway right now.”

Kassai said the long-term goal is to make health passports applicable in multiple settings, so the same credential that lets you go into work could be used to attend a football game. “At the moment, things are still quite siloed, but we’re looking at how we can make it work.”

Due to the unprecedented nature of the issue, there are few standards governing how private companies would go about monitoring their employees’ health.

Edgar A. Whitley, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, has researched the practicalities of health passports in detail. He broke down four key things for businesses to consider: what kind of test they used, who administers the test, when the test was taken, and what number of antibodies they consider safe.

“At the moment, there aren’t really any recognized standards for these things … And once you start thinking about all of the possibilities, it becomes very complicated very quickly,” Dr Whitley told Business Insider.

“If you’re testing employees, are you going to let them take a test at home, in which case the results might be unreliable, or are you going to have a medical professional on-site to oversee it all?

“Firms will have to do a cost/benefit analysis. If your productivity has been significantly reduced by the need to socially distance, maybe it would make economic sense to have an in-house testing scheme, but it won’t work for everyone.”

He added: “I have no doubt Yoti or Onfido want to create the solution that everyone buys, but this is going to be a highly fractured market, and it’s difficult for me to see how any of them will scale up.”

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