There’s been a lot of talk recently about strategies to snuff out COVID-19 using herd immunity. The idea seems great, well, in theory. Herd immunity works well against many viruses, but not all. Experts have weighed in on the pros and cons of using it against the pandemic, and the prospects aren’t looking great. Here’s what we know so far.
Herd immunity occurs when enough of the population has antibodies against a virus to keep it from spreading to the few who don’t. Kaiser Health News explains that we achieve this threshold by exposing the majority of healthy individuals via infection or vaccination.
Herd immunity (via vaccination) is how we wiped out smallpox and polio in the United States, and it’s how we keep several deadly diseases from recurring and starting new pandemics. Because of the historic effectiveness of this strategy, some experts have suggested seeking ways to use it in the fight against COVID-19.
Without an effective vaccine, the only way to achieve herd immunity against a virus is for the majority of the population to catch and recover from it. Experts estimate that at least 50% to 70% of all healthy people would need to be exposed to reach that level of protection against COVID-19. But with the death rate being as high as it is, that seems a risky step. Though we could target infect by only exposing people who are healthy and have no pre-existing conditions.
But COVID-19 frequently kills healthy people, too, so every person purposely exposed would be taking a real risk with their lives. According to an estimate published in Nature, about 2 million people would have to die in the United States using this method before the country could achieve adequate herd immunity via intentional (or neglectful spread) infection methods. Virtually all experts agree this isn't really a viable option.
Most experts agree that we can get to herd immunity via vaccines. And that's in the works. But there's more to think about even there. There’s a possible issue in the way our immune systems respond to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Many researchers are questioning our ability to remain immune to it, meaning we could take measures to achieve herd immunity, but the effect may be fleeting. The jury's still out on this one but they're trying to manage exactly this to get to a viable vaccine.
Herd immunity is a complicated process. There’s still lots of room for hope, though so don't give up on the idea just yet. We could have more fight against COVID-19 than we realize, even for those of us who’ve never been exposed to the virus. We will turn this tide. And in the process, we will save lives. It's just not going to be in the immediate sense. Soon though! Many companies are nearing success on new developments and if they can work in the long-term sense, we will be all set. Until then, keep up with the safety measures. Mask up and steer clear of socializing and indoor spaces. Together we will see better days.
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