A group of 80 researchers have warned that a herd immunity approach to managing Covid-19 — by allowing immunity to develop in low-risk populations while protecting the most vulnerable — is “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence”.
Faced with a second wave of Covid-19, and more than a million recorded deaths worldwide, the authors presented their view of the scientific consensus on the understanding of Covid-19, and the strategies that need to be put in place to protect societies and economies. The open letter will be published on Thursday in The Lancet.
It has been signed by 80 international researchers (as of publication) with expertise spanning public health, epidemiology, medicine, paediatrics, sociology, virology, infectious disease, health systems, psychology, psychiatry, health policy, and mathematical modelling
The letter will also be launched during the 16th World Congress on Public Health Programme 2020.
The researchers stated: “It is critical to act decisively and urgently. Effective measures that suppress and control transmission need to be implemented widely, and they must be supported by financial and social programmes that encourage community responses and address the inequities that have been amplified by the pandemic.”
The authors acknowledged that ongoing restrictions have understandably led to widespread demoralisation and diminishing trust among the public, and that in the face of a second wave of infection, there is renewed interest in so-called natural herd immunity approaches (allowing a large uncontrolled outbreak in the low-risk population while protecting the vulnerable, which some argue could lead to the development of infection-acquired population immunity in the low-risk population, which will eventually protect the vulnerable). But, they say, any pandemic management strategy relying upon immunity from natural infections for Covid-19 is flawed.
According to researchers, there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 after natural infection, and warn that this waning immunity as a result of natural infection would not end the Covid-19 pandemic but instead result in repeated waves of transmission over several years. They say that this could place vulnerable populations at risk for the indefinite future, as natural infection-based herd immunity strategies would result in recurrent epidemics, as seen with many infectious diseases before mass vaccination. Instead, the authors call for suppression of the virus until the population can be vaccinated.
The authors also warned that natural infection-based herd immunity approaches risk impacting the workforce as a whole and overwhelming the ability of healthcare systems to provide routine care.
The letter concluded: “The evidence is very clear: controlling community spread of Covid-19 is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months. We can’t afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence.”
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