For months we’ve been wearing masks to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Now we are hearing from some experts that taking off our masks may be the best bet to keep us protected. Say what? The concept is called herd immunity. If you haven’t heard about herd immunity, get MOO-ving to learn about it.
While we non-scientific types may not grasp the finer points of disease transmission, we do know what a herd is. Animals, likely cows, are involved, right? Indeed, a herd is a large group of one kind of animal which is kept together under human control. Typically, these animals are livestock.
But the herd immunity being discussed in scientific circles in 2020 has nothing to do with cows, pigs, or sheep. It relates to people. That’s a good one. Our group could hardly be deemed to be “under control” with all the dissension, destruction, and denigration attributable to us this year. We aren’t livestock, but some of us are behaving like animals.
The term “herd immunity,” derived from livestock management, was coined a century or so ago. The backdrop for the new phrase was a disease spreading around cattle farms. Famers combated the disease by retaining the immune cows, raising the calves, and avoiding the introduction of foreign cattle. Herd immunity’s application was extended to humans when it was observed that a significant number of children were immune to measles. (Or should that be im-MOO-ne if herd is modifying the word?)
The basic concept of herd immunity is that such a large portion of the community has become immune to a disease that its spread from person to person becomes unlikely. If enough people are resistant to the cause of a disease such as a virus, it has nowhere to go. But the more contagious a disease is the greater the proportion of the population that’s got to be immune to stop the spread. Yikes! Now with proportions we’re getting into math as well as science.
Varying estimates have been proposed as to what percentage of the U.S. population would have to have recovered from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic. These percentages range from 70% (or over 200 million people) to 90% (almost 300 million people). That’s a mighty big herd of people!
There are two paths to achieving herd immunity–infection and vaccines. Natural resistance come from exposure to the virus causing the production of antibodies which move to fight the infection. Vaccines also build resistance in the immune system by making protective antibodies. With no vaccine currently available and the timeframe for it to be available uncertain, infection is, according to herd immunity proponents, the path to take. How can you get infected? Take off your mask and let’s see.
Achieving herd immunity is more challenging when it comes to COVID-19. Why? Because it is a novel (as in “new” and not as is “book”) virus. Everyone is at risk of infection because humans have not been infected by it before. Large numbers of people thus need to catch the virus, get sick and then recover before there’s herd immunity.
WHO, the World Health Organization and not the rock band, officials have warned against trying to achieve herd immunity. Dr. Anthony Fauci is likewise concerned about such an approach to COVID-19 management. He’s stated that if the U.S. allowed the virus to spread unchecked to achieve herd immunity, “the death toll would be enormous.” And, if too many people get sick at one time, the health care system could become overwhelmed. (Think NYC earlier this year.)
Experts disagree on whether attempting to achieve herd immunity is advisable. Advocating for such focused protection are the three co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration issued on October 4th. This brief declaration, which has now been translated into over 20 languages, argues against lockdowns and calls for the reopening of businesses and schools.
The Declaration’s co-authors aren’t just any Tom, Dick, and Harry–actually make that Harriet since one is a woman. Instead, they are well-credentialed scientists who want COVID-19 policy shifted towards attaining herd immunity. Martin Kulldorff is a Harvard Medical School professor and biostatistician; Jay Bhattacharya, is a professor at Stanford University Medical School; and Sunetra Gupta is an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. These three individuals convened at the American Institute for Economic Research located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where the declaration, which now has over 9,000 signers, was issued.
How do the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration think herd immunity should be reached? FREEDOM! They would allow those at minimal risk of death from COVID-19 to live their lives normally, i.e., no masks, no stay-at-home orders, and no mandatory restrictions on activities. Those who are the most vulnerable, on the other hand, would be isolated. The co-author’s envision individuals, based upon their perception of their own personal risk of dying from COVID-19, to themselves choose the risks, activities and restrictions for themselves.
This strategy recognizes that restrictions, such as lockdowns, which are imposed to limit deaths actually cause great harm. Such measures place stress on the economy, increase drug use and domestic violence, result in isolation, and rob youth of unique memories (prom, graduation, etc.) So, the declaration’s co-authors conclude, allowing those who are at little risk of COVID-19 being fatal to them to live without restrictions causes less harm overall.
To no one’s surprise here in 2020, there is sharp disagreement as to how the spread of COVID-19 should be handled when there is no vaccine. Some want restrictions imposed on all to halt its transmission. Others urge aiming for herd immunity for the community. We aren’t cows, so let’s use our brains to determine how best to MOO-ve forward. To mask or not to mask, that is the question.
How does it strike you to have the term “herd immunity” applied to humans? What should we do when the experts disagree about how best to handle the situation? Would you feel comfortable re-MOO-ving your mask to help attain herd immunity? Why or why not?