Herd immunity is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection. Whether through vaccination or previous infections, thereby providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune.
Can Herd Immunity help Pakistan in fighting COVID-19? The idea of introducing herd immunity is not new to science and society, at large. Herd immunity is proven effective in the past to get the hold of viruses like smallpox. But is herd immunity a solution to Covid-19?
To answer these questions, we need to simultaneously analyze some factors. These include the process of herd immunity and the replication of the novel Corona Virus.
COVID- 19 is a big challenge for the entire world
The COVID-19 pandemic has left all of us in a state of trepidation. Experts believe that every present living generation of today’s world has never experienced a crisis like this ever before. Even the countries with the most developed health care system have proved to be insufficient in catering to the damage caused by Covid-19.
The possible vaccine testing has already begun in a few countries. But a long duration is imperative for it to the people’s reach. Up till then, can the world afford to pay the price that comes with inducing herd immunity without a vaccine?
How it was used in the past?
Herd immunity refers to the process where a significant percentage of a population has become immune to a disease. Mostly this percentage is as high as 80-90% of the population for herd immunity to be effective. Only then there will be a chance for developing protection for the 10-20% of people. Especially that are susceptible to the disease. The major population that has developed immunity will neither get the infection nor will be able to pass it to the susceptible ones.
Diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis have been reducing. They are wholly eradicated in many parts of the world due to herd protection. However, herd immunity became effective when vaccines were applied alongside. That means, the majority of the people were already immunize through vaccines before the viruses infected them.
Without a vaccine, we wouldn’t have been able to combat diseases like smallpox with the same success. Hence, we still see an outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases in underdeveloped countries. Especially, where the community’s response to vaccination is not adequate. So the results of inducing herd protection through active natural immunity are not so promising.
With no vaccine, should we rely on herd immunity to defeat Covid-19?
Without any vaccine, infections are overcome by the body’s response to the virus through antibodies. Herd immunity through this process would require 80-90% of the population to be exposed to the SARS-Cov-2 (the virus responsible for Covid-19). This seems a massive risk. Because we cannot guarantee what percentage of the population would survive the virus even to continue the herd protection. Also, it could take months or maybe years to develop significant herd protection.
Another big concern of achieving herd immunity in case of Covid-19 is the generation that is at high risk. This includes the children, the elderly (above 50) and immune-compromised people. The death rates would increase so much so that the situation would get out of control.
If SARS-Cov-2 is like other Corona Viruses, we can expect it to mutate over time. In this condition, the antibodies of Covid-19 recovered patients will only be useful for a few years. Until the mutated virus re-infects these individuals. Again, the herd immunity becomes questionable.
Thus the conclusion we can draw here is: although herd immunity might prove to be useful for Covid-19, the world is not ready to pay the price the process will bring along. In the worst-case scenario, health systems would collapse, and there will be a high death ratio not for months, but years.
In my opinion, the reasonable approach is to take preventive measures and maintain social distancing until the infection rates fall or a promising vaccine has been developed.
When nations chose herd immunity over lock down
The world saw how Italy suffered in the hands of Covid-19 because they didn’t take the virus seriously. The situation grew so worst that patients were left to die because there was no space in the hospital to accommodate them. Only then Italy yelled to the world to not repeat the mistakes it has.
Yet we saw how the UK, being a developed country, refused lockdown and relied on herd immunity. The situation in the UK is not any better, but since they think they have a sound healthcare system, they are ready to pay the price until herd immunity is achieved. Only time will tell how successful they get.
But in a country like Pakistan, where we have already minimal health facilities, achieving herd immunity will be a devastating process.
The hospitals are already saturated despite the lockdown being imposed in my country. There is no space in the isolation wards, and all our ventilators are occupied. Opting for herd immunity means infection rate would likely be three times higher than the recovery rate.
However, in this depressing scenario, it is good to see students around the world are coming up with short term strategies against Covid-19. One such remarkable invention is by the young scientists of NUST in Pakistan.
They have produced local testing kits to detect SARS-Cov-2. It will save the dependence of Pakistan on other countries for borrowing diagnostic kits. Even the innovative healthcare system, a Pakistan company, has collaborated with a Finland company to produce digital test kits. The production and testing samples are in progress, hope for it to be available soon. These initiatives will have monitory benefits for the country. If Pakistan has enough kits, it can conduct testing within each area of the country and isolate the Covid-19 patients. Isolation will even help to ease the lockdown as a country like Pakistan cannot afford lockdown for a long time.