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Sun 25 October 2020
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Sam Bright reports on the spread of a dangerous concept that has gained a foothold in public health decisions across the globe

A strain of pseudo-science has swept the world along with the Coronavirus pandemic, under the banner of ‘herd immunity’.

‘Herd immunity’ suggests that we should allow COVID-19 to infect as many young and healthy people as possible – who have a relatively low mortality rate from the virus – while shielding the old and vulnerable. Through this process, nations will be able to quickly build up community resistance, stopping the spread of the virus, while minimising deaths.

While this sounds idyllic, it is a dangerously misleading idea, especially in the context of COVID-19.

Firstly, the scientific consensus states that ‘herd immunity’ can really only be achieved through a vaccination programme as large majority of the population must be resistant for transmission to be sufficiently disrupted – something that is uncommon through the normal spread of a virus.

What’s more, it is entirely unclear that contracting COVID-19 leads to long-term immunity. As the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control noted in June, the longevity of antibodies after suffering from COVID-19 “is still unknown”. However, “it is known that antibodies to other coronaviruses wane over time”, typically between 12 and 52 weeks from the onset of symptoms.

There are also a large number of people who have reported long-term side-effects after contracting the disease – including debilitating lethargy and a permanent loss of taste.

And yet, the concept has gained a foothold in public health decisions across the globe – typically fanned by right-wing, populist regimes.

In the UK, ‘herd immunity’ was reportedly touted around Downing Street as a viable idea back in March, with the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance and Dr David Halpern, chief executive of the UK Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team, both mentioning it on television.

Following a concerted backlash, assisted by this paper, the Government rolled back on this strategy. Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief aide and reportedly one of the early adopters of ‘herd immunity’, allegedly saw the light after reading about the ‘Spanish’ Flu pandemic that raged across the globe from 1918 to 1920, infecting 500 million people and killing 50 million in four successive waves.

However, ‘herd immunity’ is now creeping out of the long grass. There is an organised campaign among a small yet influential group of scientists – perhaps owing to their lobbying ties – to warn against a second lockdown in the UK. Members of this group were invited to present their ideas to the Prime Minister this week, along with Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

The Swedish model has long been held up as the favoured route of blasé libertarians. The country decided against imposing strict lockdown restrictions and suffered by far the highest number of deaths in the Scandinavian region during the first Coronavirus wave. Conservatives believe that this protected the Swedish economy while ensuring enough general immunity to guard against future waves.

However, while Sweden is yet to experience a dramatic resurgence of the virus – as seen in the UK and much of mainland Europe – cases are now increasing in the capital Stockholm and the country is considering imposing new restrictions.

The ideas propounded by the UK’s lockdown-sceptic scientists are “little more than a thinly veiled return to a herd immunity strategy”, according to Dr Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. “The human cost for this has not changed since Spring, nor is it likely to.”

The second wave of COVID-19 in the UK has been accompanied by an equally unwelcome second wave of ‘herd immunity’.


The American Nightmare

Britain is not the only country to have suffered from the presence of COVID delusion.

Top of the list is the United States of America – the land of the free for all except the seven million people who have contracted the Coronavirus and the 200,000 people who have died.

Boasting a powerful right-wing lobby historically impervious to facts and science (see: climate change and guns), perhaps it was only inevitable that ‘herd immunity’ has taken hold across the Atlantic.

This was the context of a viral confrontation in the Senate this week, between one of the fact-allergic lobby – Republican Rand Paul – and a world-leading expert on infectious diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci.

First criticising the city of New York for suffering during the first wave of COVID-19, Paul then suggested the Big Apple was performing relatively well now because it had achieved a certain degree of ‘herd immunity’.

“You are not listening,” Fauci shot back. “In New York [immunity is] about 22%. If you believe 22% is ‘herd immunity’, I believe you’re alone in that.”

As Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell wrote on Twitter, Paul got “stomped by science”.

But an intellectual investment in ‘herd immunity’ is not just a habit of the fringe right – the idea has even wafted through the corridors of the White House. Just last week, President Donald Trump suggested that the virus could fizzle out, without a vaccine, through “herd mentality”.

Even some Democrats have been suckered by the concept. Back in April, Governor of California Gavin Newsom claimed that the Coronavirus would be repressed through ‘herd immunity’, prior to the release of a vaccine. Describing how the state would cope with the virus, Newsom pitched a “transition into suppression, ultimately, on our way to herd immunity”.

COVID-19 has been allowed to run rampant in Trump’s America, largely through the indecision, incompetence and fatal denialism of the President himself. Requiring a method to excuse this madness, ‘herd immunity’ is the perfect fit.


Infected India

Another populist state star-struck by ‘herd immunity’ is Narendra Modi’s India, where COVID-19 is rampant. The country is currently logging roughly 100,000 new cases every day and looks set to leapfrog America as the worst-affected in the world.

There are unique challenges that have stymied India’s response to the Coronavirus crisis: a vast population of more than 1.3 billion, poor sanitation and widespread poverty, dense living spaces and remote communities.

However, it is widely accepted that India’s reaction has been dangerously haphazard. The country implemented a national lockdown in late March but with little planning for its consequences. Announced just four hours before it came into effect – without policies to protect jobs or incomes – the lockdown prompted a mass migration of people from cities to their family homes.

The virus was consequently carried to rural areas and, while the lockdown failed to stop a steep increase in the number of cases, the Indian economy was badly affected. After two months, on a day that COVID-19 cases peaked in the country, India threw in the towel and ended the national lockdown. An estimated 100 million people had lost their jobs.

Indian public health figures have been singing the virtues of ‘herd immunity’ since the early emergence of the Coronavirus and it now seems that the Government has placed its faith in the idea. While officials maintain that masks should be worn and social distancing rules adhered to, the bustle of Indian life appears to have resumed.

“Beyond the big metros, there is little information on wearing masks,” says Preeti Kumar, of the Public Health Foundation of India. “Communication has not been sufficiently effective and sustained to spread awareness about it. Opening up is being perceived by people as if the epidemic is no more a threat.”

One of the early adopters of ‘herd immunity’ in India was Jayaprakash Muliyil, one of the country’s most influential epidemiologists, who has been advising the Government on its response to the crisis.

“‘Herd immunity’ is the only lasting solution to Coronavirus,” Muliyil said in an interview with the Wire in early April. “There is no alternative to herd immunity.”

He suggested that roughly 60% of Indians would have to contract the virus in order for ‘herd immunity’ to be effective, saying that the elderly would have to be shielded while the virus worked its way through the general population.

India has so far recorded approximately six million cases and 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. ‘Herd immunity’ under Muliyil’s logic would involve 780 million people contracting the virus. If the current death rate persisted, 12 million people would lose their lives.

Has there been a more dangerous public policy idea in the 21st Century than ‘herd immunity’? It is difficult to think of a rival.


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