Coronavirus, a disease that has taken hold on over 38 million people, and has killed over 1 million worldwide is the #1 concern of the world. It is increasingly vital that we achieve herd immunity. Herd immunity or community immunity is when a large part of a population becomes immune to a specific disease or virus. The idea is that if enough people obtain resistance to the cause of a specific disease or virus it has nowhere to spread. While this may not mean everyone is immune, with fewer at risk individuals the infection rates drop. This protects at risk populations like babies and elderly who have weaker immune systems.
Now how do we achieve immunity, there are two ways: vaccination or infection. As of right now there is no vaccine to protect against Covid-19 which means that to gain immunity you would have to catch the virus first. Anti-vaxxers (people who don’t oppose vaccinations despite scientific evidence) support the idea that a large number of people catch the virus, get sick, and then recover. The way this works is when you catch an illness your body will develop antibodies for that illness that will prevent you from being infected again. As of now the recovery rate for coronavirus infections is around 80%. However, the question is what percentage of the population must have built resistance before we reach the threshold for herd immunity? This is all dependent on the R0, (R-naught), which tells us the average number of people an infected person can spread the bacteria or virus to. Recent data has put the R0 for the novel
Coronavirus to be 2-3, which means for every 1 person with the virus that person can infect 2-3 more. In comparison, the 1918 Spanish Flu which has been compared to Covid-19 numerous times is estimated to have an R0 of 1.4-2.8. Measles, the most infectious disease known has an R0 of 15! Though this seems high several factors make it less worrisome including there being a vaccine, it’s a well-known disease, and is treatable with modern medicine. To reach herd immunity scientists have estimated that between 50-67% of the population would need to be resistant for infection rates to drop.
Natural vs. Vaccination
The question is natural or vaccine immunity? With recovery rates being relatively high could we attempt to naturally achieve herd immunity? Yes, but with so many unknowns we shouldn’t consider it . There are also questions raised about how long natural immunity will last and even if someone has immunity, can they still spread the virus? Dr. Stuart Ray, an expert of infectious diseases at John Hopkins University School of Medicine says that vaccines, on the other hand, can be made to trigger stronger immunity than natural infection.
Politics in Public Health
In past weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed that the coronavirus would simply “go away,” as people developed “herd mentality.” Herd mentality is “the tendency of the people in a group to think and behave in ways that conform with others in the group rather than as individuals.” Clearly, the President had a mix-up with words. And just recently Senator Rand Paul suggested during a hearing that the decline in New York City cases is due to herd immunity over public health precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing. These claims were shut down by Dr. Anthony Fauci who is the top U.S. infectious disease official who stated that only 22% of the New York City population had coronavirus antibodies. This ties back to the estimation that to achieve herd immunity 50-67% of the population would have to be immune. When looking at possible cases where herd immunity has shown promising results Sweden is often referenced. Again that has been proven to be a poor comparison by health experts including Fauci.
High Risk Communities
Because, the U.S. has a more diversified population, with vulnerable groups such as Black and Latino Americans being at a higher risk. We need a vaccine to safely build immunity within these communities. According to the Pew Research Center, Black Americans are more likely to live in dense populated communities, more likely to have other health conditions that can put them at higher risk, less likely to have adequate access to health care, and more likely to work in industries that require contact with the public. Coastal cities also have the most largely dense populations and will become more dense as time goes by. This is due to economic benefits including transportation link, industrial and urban development, and revenue from tourism. Today nearly 3 billion people like within 200 kilometers from the coastline, and this figure is set to double by 2025. This puts coastal cities all over the world at high risk.
In conclusion, natural immunity is not an effective nor ethical way to tackle the virus. By developing and administering a vaccine the majority of the population we can achieve herd immunity without risking the lives of billions. In a time of numerous misinformation by politicians it’s more important than ever to take precaution and listen to your local health officials as they will provide you with best measures against Covid-19.
Brian Ngo, Youth Medical Journal 2020
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