In the current situation of this fastly spreading pandemic, while many countries are imposing lockdown in the hopes of flattening the curve, a concept where people quarantine themselves so as to minimize the number of infections at a time so that the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed, others are seen to be adopting minimum lockdown in hopes of achieving herd immunity. It was seen last month when Britain tried to keep the economy running and did not impose curfews or lockdown which unfortunately backfired and led to a total lockdown. So whether to impose continuous lockdown or allow people to get infected in hopes of achieving herd immunity is going to be what looks like the biggest mass experiments in the history of the world.
What is herd immunity?
The herd immunity is a strategy to allow a majority of the population to get infected and then recover thereby gaining resistance or immunity to the virus. It occurs when a high proportion of the population is immune to an infection which usually occurs with a vaccine and since there’s currently no vaccine for the SARS-Cov-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19), scientists are investigating whether exposure and recovery from the coronavirus leads to long-term immunity. Herd immunity is achieved when enough of the population has become immune to the disease so it can no longer spread easily between them. A number of experts argue that this strategy could result in less economic devastation and human suffering than restrictive lockdowns designed to stop the virus’s spread. The main objective is to achieve enough immunity so as to decrease the death toll in case of a second wave of infection, which is usually expected in pandemics.
Countries adopting herd immunity strategy
Like mentioned earlier, the UK was one of the first few countries to try this approach but had failed as the hospitals got overwhelmed and death tolls rose to huge proportions thereby prompting them to do a lockdown to prevent further calamities.
But countries like Sweden are leading the world right now in terms of achieving herd immunity. There seems to be mixed emotions regarding their approach and whether they’re doing the right thing or not. Even though they were criticized by health experts claiming the country to be gambling with human lives and health care, Sweden has announced that its capital, Stockholm, is on track to achieve herd immunity by May. This means about 600,000 people in a city of a million could be largely immune to the virus. Doctors also claim that Sweden could very well achieve herd immunity in the next coming weeks giving hope to other countries who are waiting and watching to decide how to go about solving this novel problem.
Lockdown Vs Herd immunity
Many countries like Australia, the US, and some European countries have adopted the lockdown approach to gain time. “Buying time is absolutely critical in these early days in particular, so we can learn from the experience of others and the trials underway around the world,” said Professor Bennett from Australia.
India, though currently in lockdown which is to be lifted on May 3rd, is considered to be a good option to work with the herd immunity concept. “No country can afford a prolonged period of lockdowns, and least of all a country like India,” said Jayaprakash Muliyil, a prominent Indian epidemiologist. “You may be able to reach a point of herd immunity without infection really catching up with the elderly. And when the herd immunity reaches a sufficient number the outbreak will stop, and the elderly are also safe.” By allowing the virus to be unleashed in a controlled way for the next seven months would give 60% of the country’s people immunity by November, and thus halt the disease. Whether India will uplift the lockdown and choose to take the herd immunity approach is yet to be seen.
In the United States, protests have erupted in many states, urging governors to rollback the stay-at-home orders that have shuttered businesses causing millions of people to be laid off. President Trump is seen to support this sentiment as he doesn’t want the economy to crash but some public health officials and those in the president’s administration have warned that doing so too soon could result in another wave of cases.
Countries like Italy, Germany, and even China are now seen to start allowing people back on the streets and to their jobs in hopes of achieving some immunity, recovery, and to cushion the economy fall. Whether this will lead to a second wave of infection which may prove to be fatal or fruitful in terms of immunity is yet to be seen. The alarming fact that many people who had recovered from the disease but are being reported as being re-infected is another matter of concern in this debate as this controversially affects the concept that a person infected gains immunity to the disease. People have now left the decisions in the hands of their governing governments who are in turn being advised by major health experts.
In response to the lockdown vs herd immunity debate, El Pais the Spanish newspaper has this to say – “In no other crisis in the history of mankind has science played such an important role. But instead of a global consensus on how to respond, rarely have we seen such diverse national responses. We citizens must realize that our politicians – even if they are guided by the best intentions and the best scientific data available to them – have been wrong and will be wrong. This is how scientific knowledge is developed, through trial and error. Thanks to such diverse national responses we will be able to see within a relatively short period of time which measures work better. The mistakes will bring us to the right solution.”