- Dozens of health experts say that relying on herd immunity to control the spread of COVID-19 is a dangerous idea that can result in widespread death and an overwhelmed medical system.
- It would mean over half the country would become ill with COVID-19.
- In addition, reinfection with the new coronavirus has been documented, meaning herd immunity is likely impossible without a vaccine.
Allowing the COVID-19 pandemic to run its course through the population to create herd immunity is a “dangerous fallacy,” say the writers of an open letter published in The Lancet on Wednesday night.
It’s called the John Snow Memorandum, possibly in reference to the nineteenth-century doctor. Snow pioneered the science of epidemiology in 1854 when he tracked down the source of a London cholera epidemic to one water pump.
Dozens of health experts have signed their names in a powerful rebuttal to the idea that letting low-risk people get COVID-19 will ultimately stop its spread. This idea has been promoted by the Trump administration.
In the United States, nearly 8 million people have contracted SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and over 215,000 have died from it, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“Herd immunity occurs when a significant portion of a community develops immunity to a disease — either by vaccination or the result of natural infection,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.
He explained that this could make the spread of the disease from person to person less likely. “The entire community is then protected — not just those who are immune,” he said.
Today, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the idea of letting infections continue in order to achieve herd immunity “nonsense.”
“If you let infections rip as it were and say, ‘Let everybody get infected that’s going to be able to get infected and then we’ll have herd immunity,’… [q]uite frankly that is nonsense, and anybody who knows anything about epidemiology will tell you that that is nonsense and very dangerous,” Fauci told Yahoo News.
Aiming for herd immunity means far more deaths
Almost a hundred health experts from universities worldwide have signed the letter arguing against a herd immunity approach to COVID-19 and in favor of measures that are more restrictive.
“Although lockdowns have been disruptive, substantially affecting mental and physical health, and harming the economy, these effects have often been worse in countries that were not able to use the time during and after lockdown to establish effective pandemic control systems,” the letter reads.
According to Glatter, achieving herd immunity by natural infection (rather than by vaccine) could devastate the population by “sacrificing the most vulnerable members, while creating a large pool of infection among those at lower risk.”
Besides this, he points out that it isn’t yet clear if contracting SARS-CoV-2 makes a person immune to future infection. “[W]e already have at least five documented cases of reinfection after initial recovery from the virus, based on sequencing of the viral genomes,” said Glatter.
The John Snow Memorandum states that restrictions will likely still be necessary in the short term. Lockdowns would reduce disease spread and “fix ineffective pandemic response systems, in order to prevent future lockdowns.”
Sweden is frequently referenced as an example of the successful implementation of herd immunity to control the virus, but the data say otherwise.
“The per capita mortality rate in Sweden is actually quite high, and currently cases are rising,” said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious diseases attending physician at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York.
Letter responds to an earlier declaration
The John Snow Memorandum may have been written in response to the Great Barrington Declaration, published on October 4.
Written by a group led by three epidemiologists, the Declaration says that letting the new coronavirus spread among less vulnerable groups while protecting those at higher risk is the best way to deal with the pandemic.
“As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all — including the vulnerable — falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity — i.e., the point at which the rate of new infections is stable — and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity,” says the Declaration.
They call this idea “focused protection.”
“This is unequivocally a dangerous approach,” insisted Hirschwerk.
He said about 10 percent of the U.S. population has contracted the virus so far. However, attaining herd immunity would require “about 180 to 200 million more people to become infected.”
Hirschwerk added, “While young healthy individuals may not become very sick, many of them will clearly transmit the virus to vulnerable individuals who will become ill and die.”
He warned that there would be “serious illness and death” in many young, otherwise healthy people as well, and additionally, our healthcare systems would quickly become overwhelmed.
“It’s an approach that nightmares are built upon,” he emphasized.
According to the John Snow Memorandum, “the evidence is very clear” that controlling community spread of COVID-19 is the best way to protect societies and economies until “safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months.”
Lockdowns are clearly effective
According to Hirschwerk, we have ample evidence that lockdowns are effective to reduce disease spread.
He said that areas that instituted lockdowns “achieved control of community spread that then allowed for gradual opening,” while regions in the United States that didn’t lock down or opened too broadly “had more widespread advancement of infection.”
“Are the writers of this editorial justified in calling the herd immunity approach a dangerous fallacy unsupported by the scientific evidence?” Hirschwerk asked. “I don’t disagree with that assessment.”
The bottom line
In a recently published open letter, nearly a hundred health experts claim that relying on herd immunity to control the spread of COVID-19 is a dangerous idea that can result in widespread death and an overwhelmed medical system.
Experts say that Sweden, the only nation that didn’t institute lockdowns, is actually experiencing high mortality and an increasing number of cases.
They add that relying on a herd immunity approach in the United States could result in serious illness and death in many young, otherwise healthy people.
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