Herd Immunity is a Double Tragedy in the Making

Yesterday we learned that two unnamed White House spokespeople confirmed that achieving “herd immunity” for Covid-19 is part of the President’s plan to control the pandemic. Achieving herd immunity means effectively letting the virus spread unchecked. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the approach “scientifically and ethically problematic,” saying in a media briefing that “never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak.”

But the WHO chief is pulling his punches. This policy is equivalent to mass murder because it anticipates between 2-6 million Americans die in the coming months from Covid-19. The math is simple and straightforward. Between 1 and 3% of those tested virus-positive die. The plan is to allow 250 million Americans to become infected. At 1% that is 2.5 million people—our friends, parents, and children included.

A policy of “herd immunity” is a double tragedy in the making. There is no evidence that “herd immunity” exists for Covid-19. Quite the opposite. Naturally acquired immunity to well characterized human coronaviruses, and to SARS-CoV-2 in particular appears to be short-lasting, especially for the vast majority of those infected asymptomatically. The recent story in the New York Times, suggesting reinfection is rare, is misleading as reinfection with coronaviruses occurs yearly and would not be manifest for several months hence. Moreover, there has been no systematic effort to measure actual reinfection rates. We don’t see what we don’t measure.

The hope that a vaccine will spare us seems ephemeral. At best as I can tell those developing Covid-19 vaccines are hoping that they will be as effective as the influenza vaccine, that is to say no more than 30 to 60% effective in reducing symptoms. We all know that flu vaccines do not prevent the annual reoccurrence of the flu, nor should we expect a Covid-19 vaccine to do better. In fact, flu vaccines do not even prevent those vaccinated from infection, and only partially protect us from serious disease. For the elderly, they do that poorly.

In his broader comments about the herd immunity approach, Tedros reminds us that public health measures can control the pandemic—witness China—and that we need all the tools of public health and medicine if we are to be successful. We are in the early stages of a virulent second wave of disease sweeping Europe and an epidemic taking off to even greater heights in the US. This is no time to give up the fight!

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.