Herd immunity approach to pandemic ‘dangerous fallacy’, researchers warn

Test tube with Corona virus name label is seen in this illustration taken on Jan 29 2020

Test tube with Corona virus name label is seen in this illustration taken on Jan 29 2020

Using herd immunity to manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was "a risky fallacy unsupported by the scientific evidence", 80 researchers wrote in an open letter published by medical journal The Lancet on Thursday.

The letter says: "The arrival of a second wave and the realisation of the challenges ahead has led to renewed interest in a so-called herd immunity approach, which suggests allowing a large uncontrolled outbreak in the low-risk population while protecting the vulnerable".

According to the scientists, vulnerable populations are at risk indefinitely as natural herd immunity strategies based on infection would lead to recurring epidemics, as is the case with many infectious diseases before mass vaccination.

They said this dwindling immunity due to natural infection would not end the COVID-19 pandemic but would instead lead to repeated waves of transmission over several years.

The letter's publication comes after the release of "The Great Barrington Declaration" on October 4, which was cited by two anonymous White House senior administration officials on an October 15 call, according to The New York Times.

Based on evidence from many countries, the scientists said it is not possible to restrict uncontrolled outbreaks to certain sections of society, adding that it is "practically impossible" and "highly unethical" to isolate large swathes of the population.

"As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all - including the vulnerable - falls".

"Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it, which we can't".

The authors also warn that natural infection-based herd immunity approaches risk impacting the workforce as a whole and overwhelming the ability of healthcare systems to provide acute and routine care.

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The port is a key component of Beijing's multi-billion dollar road-and-belt project linking Beijing to Central and South Asia. The corridor seeks to connect China's western province of Xinjiang with Gwadar, giving Beijing access to the Arabian Sea.

The almost 10,000 medical and public health signatories, who are mostly anonymous until the declaration is approved, call their method "Focused Protection".

"Letting the virus circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death".

The researchers cautioned that there is now no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 after natural infection.

"It would also place an unacceptable burden on the economy and healthcare workers, many of whom have died from Covid-19 or experienced trauma as a result of having to practise disaster medicine", they wrote.

"We can not afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence", they concluded. Doing so, they said, would allow communities to establish herd immunity in lieu of a working vaccine.

Concerns over herd immunity spiked after United States president Donald Trump claimed he was immune for "maybe a long time" after being discharged from the Walter Reed Medical Centre on last week after contracting COVID-19.

Responding to news of the declaration during a CNN interview on Wednesday morning, Dr. William Haseltine, a former professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, warned against the White House embracing a herd immunity approach.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the concept was "unethical". She's an alumna of Boston University and has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Science, and The Boston Globe.

Instead, he recommends contact tracing, isolation of infected individuals, physical distancing, continued testing and simple hygiene like hand washing as a way to combat the virus.

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