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SAGEGATE: Government Still Chasing ‘Long-Term Herd Immunity’ Through Recurrent Waves of COVID-19

Analysis of new documents from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies shows that the quest for herd immunity, through several waves of the Coronavirus over a number of years, has not gone away

SAGEGATEGovernment Still Chasing ‘Long-Term Herd Immunity’ Through Recurrent Waves of COVID-19

Analysis of new documents from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies shows that the quest for herd immunity, through several waves of the Coronavirus over a number of years, has not gone away

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England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries acknowledged on 3 July that there was “quite a possibility” the UK could see a second wave of COVID-19.

Referring to the Leicester outbreak which saw lockdown extended in the area, she implied a second wave was a distinct possibility since restrictions have eased and people are no longer being careful about social distancing or hand-washing. 

But newly released documents from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reveal that, a month earlier, the Government was warned explicitly of a second wave if restrictions were eased without a robust national test and trace system.

The documents also confirm that the Government was still receiving scientific advice on herd immunity.

Analysis of the documents suggests that the Government has not only recklessly sped ahead with lifting restrictions knowing that it would probably trigger a COVID-19 resurgence, but did so in pursuit of the belief that the virus is so unstoppable that it is bound to become a ‘fifth’ seasonal coronavirus like those that cause common flus and colds. 


System Failure

On 3 June, SAGE told the Government that easing restrictions without a properly functioning test and trace system would risk renewed outbreaks of the disease.  

A document from the SAGE sub-group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O) – the body of scientists who advise the Government on influenza pandemic outbreaks – records the scientists noting that “previous advice concerning the loosening of social distancing measures at the start of June was predicated on there being a highly effective system of contact tracing in place. So effective that 80% of contacts of index cases are identified and quarantined within 48 hours”. 

Yet, as lockdown restrictions were eased, there was no such system in place. Since the end of May through to late June, official Government data revealed that less than half of people who tested positive for COVID-19 provided contact information that teams could use to trace and isolate further possibly infected people.

Between 25 June and 1 July, newer data showed that only 77% of people who had come into contact with these infected people were being traced. And of those, only a further 70.8% of this total were reached and asked to self-isolate. In short, the data suggests that, since the test and trace system was launched, well below 80% of the contacts of infected people are being identified and quarantined.

A SPI-M-O sub-group’s document dated 3 June notes concern from scientists that “if these criteria are not yet being met, there is a risk that R [the total number of people an infected person is likely to infect] will rise above 1 in many areas of UK with a return to exponential growth of the epidemic”.

As predicted, more than a month after this warning, the R number has now risen in England to somewhere between 0.8 and 1, amidst what the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has described as more than 100 local outbreaks taking place across the country every week. The new R number range indicates that it could be as high as one in every other English region apart from the Midlands.

The Return of Herd Immunity

On the same day the Government was warned about a second wave, it also received advice from SAGE virologist Professor Wendy Barclay, head of infectious disease at Imperial College London.

Barclay advised that recent findings on antibodies stated that “tests that measure neutralising antibody responses might indicate the level of ‘immunity’ to reinfection or disease in the population” but that “it is still not clear how long naturally induced antibodies will persist”.

She added: “There is still no evidence that the immune response protects people from reinfection”.

This week, a new study by scientists at King’s College London confirmed that people who recover from COVID-19 lose their immunity within around two to three months.

Barclay is the co-author of a study published the previous month in the Journal of General Virology, claiming that COVID-19 could eventually become a fifth seasonal coronavirus – similar to the previous four – which cause common colds.

Under this theory, future waves of COVID-19 would lead to gradually expanding levels of immunity which, even if they eventually wane, might see the severity of the disease potentially decline over time. We would then expect “annual, biennial or sporadic patterns of [COVID-19] epidemics over the next five years”.

But the study acknowledged that the evidence-base for these modelling scenarios is not yet certain, with a need for further “serological studies” to determine the “level of antibody protection from reinfection… the duration of the total humoral immune response… and the rate of decline from mild or severe infection induced antibodies” – all of which “is not known”.

Commenting on these conclusions, Barclay’s co-author Professor Paul Kellam, also a SAGE advisor, admitted that “we do not really know what happens on the pathway of a new Coronavirus in humans becoming an endemic seasonal infection, but it could be that when the four seasonal Coronavirus first jumped from animals into humans they were much like SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] in their transmission and pathogenesis. Over time as population immunity to the seasonal coronavirus became widespread, the amount of severe disease probably declines”.

Barclays’ advice was issued on the same day that the SAGE modelling sub-group advised on the risk of a second wave. This suggests that the Government has been less than honest with the public about its COVID-19 strategy and that it anticipates, not just a second wave, but third, fourth, fifth if not countless more and that it believes these waves may allow the UK population to build up immunity over a long period of time – as long as five years if not more – until the more severe symptoms begin to wane in strength.

Such a strategy suggests that the Government is explicitly not attempting to suppress COVID-19 and is hoping that herd immunity can be achieved through long-lasting antibodies from repeated waves of infection and reinfection – which, of course, involves mass deaths. 

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