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The Herd Instinct and ‘Herd Immunity’: The Etiology of a Bad Idea

The science didn’t change – the politics did. Peter Jukes follows an inflammatory and disastrous theory as it spread rapidly through the British body politic.

Teenagers wearing face masks on the London Underground on 13 March 2020
The Herd Instinct
& ‘Herd Immunity’
The Etiology of a Bad Idea

The science didn’t change – the politics did. Peter Jukes follows an inflammatory and disastrous theory as it spread rapidly through the British body politic.

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No one quite knows when the notion of ‘herd immunity’ crept into British Government decisions on how to cope with the global pandemic of SARs-Cov-2, the virus which causes the disease COVID-19, which has left much of the world facing its biggest crisis in peacetime.

Certainly, it was a uniquely British thing, and no other country has put it at the centre of its pandemic strategy. A Google Trends search shows that the phrase itself became a global trend focused on UK media sometime after 12 March, when ITV News political editor Robert Peston explained the concept in a news report.

But, as the report released on Monday night by Imperial College’s COVID-19 Response Team showed, the concept of herd immunity was at the heart of the modelling which became the core of the Government’s response from the beginning of the year. Its projections were radically revised “a few days ago” because the team dramatically underestimated by several factors the impact on UK healthcare services by using viral pneumonia hospitalisation rates as a baseline. However, the underlying assumptions about herd immunity remain, like an artefact of a forgotten civilisation.

When the full story of this crisis is written, herd immunity will appear as a morbid and dangerous idea which found an undefended, compromised and vulnerable host in the British body politic.

With Britain now having lost up to seven weeks by the World Health Organisation’s timetable, this error might well be catastrophic for the British people. Let’s hope not. But why was herd immunity even factored into the equation in the first place?

A Bad Idea: Poorly Understood

Though ‘herd immunity’ sounds like a scientifically-established natural phenomenon with a long history in evolutionary biology, it has been for 50 years at the centre of one practice and one practice only – vaccination.

It generally refers to the theory that even uninoculated individuals remain protected from epidemic diseases if the majority of a population is immune. Some of that immunity may have come from surviving an infection, but discussions of herd immunity overwhelmingly focus on increasing the numbers of inoculated – usually up to 93-95% of the population – by using a vaccine.

So, here’s the first problem with even using the herd immunity concept in the current pandemic: there is no vaccine for COVID-19 and one is at least six to 12 months away.

The secondary problem is that herd immunity usually applies to stable viruses such as Rubeola, which causes measles. COVID-19 and other SARS (Serious Acute Respiratory Syndrome) infections most closely resemble flu viruses which mutate quickly. The COVID-19 strain has already mutated into two different types and there is no clear cut information that anti-bodies persist long enough to stop another infection a year or so later.

As far as I can find out, the concept of natural herd immunity in the absence of a vaccine has never been at the centre of any medical or public health project in the world. Quite the reverse. It has always been part of a mass vaccination programme. So the UK Government and its advisors appear – until evidence proves to the contrary – to have been involved in some massive unprecedented experiment on the British population with poor data on a new viral threat.

If this is true, then the herd immunity error could be as politically significant as the faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Cock Up Not Conspiracy

I never believed that the 2003 WMD fiasco was deliberately contrived to launch an invasion, but instead was an unconscious feedback loop of political pressure and expedience meeting poorly assessed intelligence – as the Chilton Inquiry into the Iraq invasion laid bare.

When the public inquiry into the current Coronavirus fiasco is one day held, I believe – like the Chilton Inquiry – it will reveal the rivalry of different government think tanks, lobbyists and interest groups, and be coloured by unconscious political bias rather than any kind of deliberate conspiracy against the wellbeing of the British people.

Of course, the bovine phrase ‘herd immunity’ makes it sound like the British people are being treated like cattle. That’s unfortunate and there is a lack of trust of core personnel in the current Government. The Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings has a tendency to latch onto poorly evidenced scientific concepts (such as the heritability of intelligence). He has hired other special advisors with even more ill-informed ideas about genetics. But there is no justification for the notion that this was a deliberate project to kill off the elderly – a demographic which votes disproportionately for the Conservative Party – or as a ‘cull’ of the infirm. (Though there may be those on the fringes of the party who hold such thoughts).

Whatever the origins and intentions, herd immunity has been a catastrophic mistake in action ever since the Coronavirus emerged. As the journalist Stefan Simanowitz has shown, with a sleuth’s eye for detail, the premise of mass infection to inspire national immunity was clearly on the Prime Minister’s mind during his “take it on the chin” remarks on television on 5 March.

Even back then, many made the immediate calculation that – at a hospitalisation rate of 5%, with only 4,000 intensive care beds in the UK (of which around 80% are occupied) – Britain’s health services would be overwhelmed if more than 100,000 people contracted COVID-19. But the Government still persisted in pushing its herd immunity agenda for another two weeks.

Against mounting criticism, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied that herd immunity was part of the Government’s planning and called it “a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy”. But, thanks to the Imperial College report, we do know it was key to its modelling right to the end. And how do we know it isn’t still?

Far more worrying than whatever strange ideas Number 10’s “weirdos and misfits” might hold has been the lack of transparency and accountability over the biggest public health crisis for a century and an almost complete absence of scrutiny from Britain’s media and press.

Peston did quickly write a follow-up report covering the doubts about the herd immunity plan, but for days afterwards correspondents on other major channels were still unreservedly praising Boris Johnson’s conversion to science or promoting videos using a bucket and tap which appeared to explain how simple and brilliant the Government’s policy was – when it was anything but.

Dissenting scientists were mocked and demeaned. Questioning journalists were accused of alarmism and being “a danger to the rest of us“.

So far, there has been no public contrition or official recognition that the public has been dangerously misinformed. The current excuse is that ‘the science changed’. But it didn’t. The World Health Organisation and others have been reporting on the progress of Sars-Cov-2 for two months and their advice on containment, testing, tracing, quarantining and social distancing has been consistent for weeks.

What changed was that a wider community of scientists and citizens began to analyse the Government’s plans, match them to the country’s health capacities and question its stated premises again. When those premises and underlying data were finally made public, they were found to be fatally flawed. But, by then, two months of proper preparation had been lost.

For now, we must concentrate on isolating the Coronavirus and supporting our frontline medical services as they face an unprecedented onslaught. But, when the full story of this crisis is written, herd immunity will appear as a morbid and dangerous idea which found an undefended, compromised and vulnerable host in the British body politic.

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