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80 researchers argue COVID-19 herd immunity strategy is a "dangerous fallacy" in open letter

Published on 15/10/20 at 01:35pm
Image credit: Kwh1050

A group of 80 researchers have lent their signatures to an open letter published in the The Lancet under the title ‘Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: We need to act now’, warning in particular against the resurgence of the pursuit of herd immunity as a credible strategy to combat national outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.

As economies around the world buckle under the strain of national and regional lockdowns, and with a second wave of infections looming or already sweeping through many areas, the strategy is again being touted as a possible methodology to shield economies from further harm while maintaining some semblance of normality for citizens.

Such an approach, which was mulled by some governments in the early stages of the pandemic, would involve isolating and locking down the vulnerable members of society, while allowing the virus to spread uncontrolled in the young and healthy contingent of the population. Experts signing the letter argue that this approach is not based on scientific evidence.

The letter acknowledges the rising contention in discussions surrounding the necessity and effectiveness of strict lockdown measures in reducing transmission of the virus as strategies are discussed to resist a second wave of infections: “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. Proponents suggest this would lead to the development of infection-acquired population immunity in the low-risk population, which will eventually protect the vulnerable.

“This is a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence. Any pandemic management strategy relying upon immunity from natural infections for COVID-19 is flawed. Uncontrolled transmission in younger people risks significant morbidity and mortality across the whole population. In addition to the human cost, this would impact the workforce as a whole and overwhelm the ability of health-care systems to provide acute and routine care.”

So far, there has been no evidence to suggest that acquired immunity through exposure to the virus lasts for any significant length of time. Furthermore, the letter notes that “like other seasonal coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 is capable of re-infecting people who have already had the disease, but the frequency of re-infection is unknown.” Taking these considerations into account, any effort to allow the virus to spread unchecked could be futile and highly dangerous.

“Such a strategy would not end the COVID-19 pandemic but result in recurrent epidemics, as was the case with numerous infectious diseases before the advent of vaccination,” the letter argued.

In light of this, the researchers call for the implementation of measures which “suppress and control transmission” of the virus, backed up by essential “financial and social programmes that encourage community responses and address the inequities that have been amplified by the pandemic.”

They argue that restrictions will likely continue to be necessary in the short term in order to “reduce transmission and fix ineffective pandemic response systems” if future lockdowns and restrictions are to be avoided. “The purpose of these restrictions is to effectively suppress SARS-CoV-2 infections to low levels that allow rapid detection of localised outbreaks and rapid response through efficient and comprehensive find, test, trace, isolate, and support systems so life can return to near-normal without the need for generalised restrictions. Protecting our economies is inextricably tied to controlling COVID-19. We must protect our workforce and avoid long-term uncertainty.”

Matt Fellows

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