“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization told the world during a virtual press briefing on Monday, October 12.
He added, “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic…[the method is] scientifically and ethically problematic.”
What Is Herd Immunity?
Herd immunity is the notion that if a high percentage of the population has contracted a virus or been vaccinated from it, the virus will not spread to the remainder of the population because of this created immunization. The idea is that the world could become inoculated from the virus to avoid spreading any further.
With a virus such as COVID-19, herd immunity is currently not an option.
Has Anyone Tried It – And Has It Worked?
Since the widespread outbreak began earlier this year, Sweden and the UK have both attempted herd immunity.
The UK abandoned the approach because it failed, resulting in higher infection and death rates. Government officials blamed “poor messaging” and changed their approach.
Sweden, however, remains in this failed state, resulting in higher numbers than any of the countries surrounding its borders. While the rest of the world instituted shutdowns, Sweden remained open. Many Swedish citizens took to their homes, and the government did ban gatherings over 50, but they hoped that their approach would result in putting the pandemic behind them quickly.
Swedish authorities actively discouraged mask-wearing – purporting it would spread fear rather than safety – and even reprimanded or fired doctors for wearing them.
We Still Don’t Know Enough About Immunity For COVID-19
Even though we’ve been in this worldwide pandemic for most of a year, we still simply do not know enough about immunity responses to the virus. Things we know about other diseases don’t apply here. There are cases of reinfection, which means we aren’t guaranteed immunity after having it once. There are mutations, meaning that what we knew about one strain may not apply to another strain, making vaccines difficult and time-consuming to create.
Dr. Stuart Ray, M.D., professor of medicine at John Hopkins University School of Medicine says that “for a highly infectious virus-like SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19], the minimal level to reach herd immunity…is thought to be about 60% of the population.” That expectation varies from group to group, however, so we don’t even know what numbers we’d be aiming for, and, in the meantime, we’re risking the lives of people. “Even if testing positive for antibodies to the virus indicates that immunity gained will be more than temporary, we are probably far from that threshold.”
Because of these factors – that is, lack of information – we cannot rely on herd immunity to reduce infections of the coronavirus. “Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical,” Tedros says. “The vast majority of people in most countries remain susceptible to this virus. Letting the virus circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death.”
WHO estimates that less than 10 percent of the population has immunity to the coronavirus, meaning the other 90 percent plus remain susceptible to the disease.