There is no easy way out of the coronavirus pandemic. And if you think herd immunity could be our exit route, think again, say scientists.
According to a recent paper from the University of Chicago, herd immunity is realized when a large part of the population gains immunity from a virus, which essentially stops its transmission dead in its tracks. And those who have not acquired immunity have a negligible chance of actually becoming infected.
In order for herd immunity to take hold in the U.S. and release us from the scourge of COVID-19, almost 70 percent of the population would need to become resistant to the virus through immunity. But immunity isn’t easy to come by, nor is it guaranteed. Becoming immune to COVID-19 involves millions of us in the U.S. either recovering from a COVID-19 infection or being vaccinated. And even then, there are no promises.
How close are we to herd immunity?
Even though the number of cases continues to rise at an alarming rate in the US, we are a far way off from herd immunity says Danielle Ompad, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, who cautions against finding resistance to the deadly virus through infection.
“The challenge with COVID-19 is multifold. We do not know if infection confers immunity,” she says. “It’s also unclear how long protection would last in a person infected with COVID-19. We do not have the research on this.”
In the United States, only about 1 percent of the population has been infected, according to John Hopkins University’s Case Tracker that recorded more than 3 million COVID-19 cases this past week. In hard hit cities like New York, where it would seem herd immunity could take hold, just 20 percent of its residents have tested positive for antibodies. This is hardly a threshold offering protection for those who remain susceptible.
People becoming infected and falling severely ill is still our reality.
And public health officials project that a vaccine for COVID-19 is unlikely to become available until sometime in 2021.
The fact is, many Americans have not been exposed to the virus at this point. Social distancing has, so far, reduced virus transmission. Any decreases in recorded deaths across the States has been hard won. But other than washing our hands, standing six feet apart and wearing a mask, what more can we do?
What to do—and what not to do—now
In a startling and disturbing twist, some people have taken matters into their own hands. Similar to those chickenpox get-togethers of yesteryear where well-meaning parents gathered their kids together to for an itching good time, we have come to the advent of the COVID-19 party. But before you RSVP that plus 1 to your neighbor’s invite, here’s a fun fact: COVID-19 is 100 times deadlier than the varicella zoster virus, the virus that causes chickenpox.
And, the verdict is still out on what happened to those college kids in Tuscaloosa, Alabama who threw COVID-19 party. Health officials recorded an increase in numbers of young people testing positive with COVID-19 in the Tuscaloosa area, but whether the rise is related to the parties yet to be determined.
“To achieve herd immunity through infection is one of the most ill-conceived ideas I can think of right now, says Ompad. “When people become infected with COVID-19, it affects other people. People get seriously sick and many die.”
When Sweden’s top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell abandoned his ambitious herd immunity plan that projected group immunity by May, many of his proponents also retreated. There was a spate of deaths among the elderly population and a death toll that surpassed that of Sweden’s neighboring countries, countries that had implemented strict lockdown measures.
Tegnell later admitted that the prospect of herd immunity trended “surprisingly slow.”
Herd immunity through community spread in the fight against COVID-19 just seems too risky.
But will the U.S. ever achieve herd immunity for COVID-19 as we did with measles and diphtheria?
“The best way to get herd immunity is through a vaccine – it has the least burden on the population. A vaccine – that’s how we’re going to get the numbers down and reduce death and illness,” says Ompad.
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