Scientists split over whether herd immunity is inhumane or inevitable
Scientists are split over coronavirus restrictions after thousands called for them to be lifted in a herd immunity strategy.
Over 3,000 scientists and 5,000 doctors including dozens in Britain signed the Great Barrington Declaration calling for life to return to normal for all but the elderly and vulnerable.
They warned of worsening cardiovascular and mental health and missed procedures during lockdown.
However, there are more scientists who oppose the bid.
Some have been calling for even tougher measures such as a “circuit breaker” lockdown to stop the virus spreading.
They argue there is no proof immunity lasts after developing Covid-19, and shielding the vulnerable is impossible once the virus is widespread.
It mirrors a wider debate among our politicians and in communities across the country and around the world.
Here two leading experts make the case for and against this week’s declaration.
Professor Mike Hulme, Signatory and Academic at the University of Cambridge
There is no doubt that Covid-19 kills people –mostly the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and, disproportionately, men such as myself.
There is also no doubt that for others, Covid-19 can lead to lasting adverse health conditions of varying duration and severity.
But for the vast majority, especially those under 60, Covid-19 is not something to fear.
Young adults and children are far more likely to die from traffic accidents, suicide or cancers.
But there is also no doubt the authoritarian Covid-19 policy measures pursued by many governments, like in the UK, are imposing huge damaging short and long-term impacts on the physical and mental health of the population.
These include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health. Socially-disadvantaged and younger people carry the heaviest burden of the current policy regime.
The Barrington Declaration calls for a different approach, called focused protection.
Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses. It recognises that elimination of Covid-19 is not a practical objective. It recognises that vaccines will never be fully effective and many will choose not to receive a vaccine.
In any case, vaccines will deliver their benefits too late to prevent the enormous harms now being caused to society that the present UK Government policy is perpetuating.
In contrast, focused protection balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity. It does not seek to eliminate Covid-19 from society.
Instead, it delivers a targeted way of maximising the overall physical, mental and emotional health of the population at large.
It allows those at minimal risk of death or serious illness from Covid to live normally, and build immunity through natural infection. Simple hygiene measures should be practised by all to reduce the herd immunity threshold.
At the same time, focused protection is targeted at better protecting those at highest risk, like those in care homes and in hospitals.
A total national lockdown may have been justified back in March. Continuing such authoritarian measures seven months later, when we know so much more about the nature of Covid risk, will seriously damage the social fabric and public health of the nation.
Dr Michael Head, Leading Global Health Expert at the University of Southampton
The Barrington Declaration is based on a false premise – that governments and the scientific community wish extensive lockdowns to continue until a vaccine is available.
Lockdowns are only ever used when transmission is high.
Now we have some knowledge about how best to handle new outbreaks, most national and subnational interventions are much “lighter” than the full suppressions we have seen – for example, in the UK, across the spring of 2020.
Those behind the Barrington Declaration are advocates of herd immunity within a population.
They state that “those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal” – the idea being that, somehow, the vulnerable of society will be protected from ensuing transmission of a dangerous virus.
It is a very bad idea.
We saw that, even with intensive lockdowns in place, there was a huge excess death toll – with the elderly bearing the brunt of that.
Some 20%-30% of the UK population would be classed as vulnerable to a severe Covid-19 infection.
Around 8% of the UK population has some level of immunity to this novel coronavirus, and that immunity will likely wane over time and be insufficient to prevent a second infection.
A strategy for herd immunity would also promote further inequalities across society, for example across the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
The declaration also ignores the emerging burdens of “long Covid”.
We know that many people, even younger populations who suffered from an initially mild illness, are suffering from longer-term consequences of a Covid-19 infection.
The independent SAGE group are among the many scientists who have eloquently pointed out the many reasons why these initiatives are ultimately harmful, and are misleading as to the scientific evidence base.
There are countries managing the pandemic relatively well, including South Korea and New Zealand – their strategies do not include simply letting the virus run wild while hoping that the asthmatic community and the elderly can hide somewhere for 12 months.
They have a proactive approach to “test and trace” to reduce the impact of new outbreaks, and good public health messaging from the government to their populations.
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