The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak is running rampant across the globe, with more people infected and dying from the contagious disease. Europe is now considered the new epicenter of the global pandemic as Italy and Spain reports thousands of infections occurring every day.
Now, the United Kingdom is receiving criticism after it considered herd immunity as a protection measure. The U.K.’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, has said that herd immunity was one option the government was considering in its effort to curb the spread of the virus.
However, the government has backed away from the plan. Matt Hancock, the U.K. secretary of state for health and social care, emphasized that herd immunity is not included in the policy to control the coronavirus spread.
Instead, they appeal to residents who are over the age of 70 to stay at home and self-isolate since they are at a high risk of developing severe disease. The World Health Organization (WHO), however, recommends that anyone, regardless of age, should stay at home and practice social distancing.
“What we will do is listen to all the credible scientists, and we will look at all the evidence. Herd immunity is not our goal or policy; it’s a scientific concept,” Hancock reiterated.
Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2: This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Credit: NIAID-RML
What is herd immunity?
Herd immunity describes how a population becomes protected from a disease after vaccination by stopping the virus or pathogen being transmitted across communities. This way, even those people without immunization become protected.
By being immunized, a person does not only protect himself from a pathogen, but also he cannot transmit the infection to other people.
Sir Patrick Vallance said some fears reducing the virus spread too hard could promote its return in the future. Herd immunity aims to reduce the peak, broaden the height, and not suppress it. Further, herd immunity means that a majority of people will only get mild illness for their bodies to build immunity against the pathogen, so more people are immune to the disease. It will also reduce transmission rates.
Is it a viable method to stop COVID-19?
The U.K. coronavirus death toll almost doubled on March 16, to 56, while the number of infections rose to 1,551. France and Spain have already announced their lockdown to prevent further spread of the virus. Other European countries have tightened travel restrictions to make sure those from stricken countries won’t enter their borders.
Dr. William Hanage, a professor of the evolution and epidemiology of infectious disease at Harvard, said that the U.K.’s aim of herd immunity is to manage the outbreak and prevent a devastating second wave in the coming months or during the next winter. Since a lot of the population are at a lower risk of having severe COVID-19 disease, those who are below 40 years old and those without comorbidities or underlying health conditions, they can provide herd immunity for everyone.
However, he added that, in reality, it would not be feasible because it would not be recommended to put anyone at risk of infection, even if infecting younger people would mean protection for the population as a whole.
What to do instead?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the practice of social distancing, proper hygiene, and self-isolation, especially for those at higher risk or those with suspected infection. This way, the transmission of the virus can be minimized, if not eradicated.
Other countries have already imposed lockdowns, community quarantines, and the banning of public gatherings to minimize the effect of the global pandemic. These countries, such as Italy and the Philippines, have imposed these restrictions to contain the virus.
In Italy, as of writing, has reported over 27,980 infections and more than 2,150 deaths. The government has placed the whole nation into lockdown to prevent further spread of the virus.
The Philippines have declared an enhanced community quarantine, where restaurants, malls, and gatherings are shut down, except those offering necessities, deliveries, and ‘take-away’ services. Though residents can work, the government has urged private companies to let their employees work from home while schools are shut down until April 15. Further, curfew hours have been imposed on everyone, except night shift workers, healthcare workers, and government employees working in the front line of the COVID-19 response.
The country has imposed these precautionary measures despite having 142 cases and 12 deaths, but even so, being early to impose restrictions may help curb the spread of the deadly virus. The Philippines and Italy have higher than the general average of fatality rates, with roughly 7 percent death rate compared to just 2 to 3 percent in some countries.
The United Kingdom has not imposed a lockdown yet. The U.K.’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said that imposing these would be too early, probably causing residents to become exhausted and may stop participating in it. However, public gatherings will be banned to prevent virus spread.
Most European countries have taken drastic steps to curb the coronavirus spread, but the U.K. has not yet imposed social distancing measures. It has not, however, restricted social distancing measures on public gatherings despite an increase in confirmed cases and death toll. So far, the U.K. has more than 1,551 infections and 56 reported deaths.
What is herd immunity?