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Why herd immunity is ‘dangerous’ as a COVID-19 strategy

Across the globe, governments and health officials are grappling with how to contain COVID-19 while keeping society open. One idea that has been raised is seeking widespread immunity by allowing a larger and healthier segment of the population to become infected with the virus. But many experts say that’s a dangerous path. Amna Nawaz talks to virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia Public Health.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a pressing question across the globe, how to stop the spread of COVID-19 while keeping society open.

    One idea that's been raised in some quarters is to try to get widespread immunity by allowing a larger and healthier segment of the public to become infected with the virus.

    But, as Amna Nawaz tells us, most public health experts say that is a dangerous path.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this goes back to what's traditionally known as herd immunity, the idea that a disease will eventually stop spreading when it has infected enough of the population to build wide-scale resistance.

    Now, that idea has been mentioned by the Trump administration as an approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's raised concerns among many scientists.

    For more on why, I'm joined by Angela Rasmussen. She's a virologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

    Angela, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, just so people understand, when we're talking about herd immunity, what are some examples people might know of, of where it has worked in the past?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    So, people can think of any of the vaccine-preventable diseases that we have really conquered through immunization.

    If you think about measles, if you think about polio, these viruses used to run rampant through the population. Once we started vaccinating people, and the majority of people, against them, those viruses essentially went away out of our population.

    And we have actually seen some of them come back, specifically measles, as people have started not getting vaccinations in larger numbers.

    So, we can understand, by looking at these other diseases, how herd immunity works, and how it can falter if that level of immunity is not maintained.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we mentioned the administration's held it up before as a possible strategy.

    This week, two senior White House officials actually convened a call, and they held up something called the Great Barrington Declaration. It's basically a petition from a think tank that says we should work towards huge herd immunity to end the lockdowns and reopen businesses. Basically, young, healthy people should get naturally infected, the vulnerable should be protected, and we can thus reach herd immunity.

    Would that work with the COVID pandemic?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    I think that that's extremely unrealistic.

    First of all, there's a number of people who qualify as vulnerable, as much as a third of the population. So that would mean isolating the hundreds of millions of people, potentially, which is just not realistic to do. How are those people supposed to get food? How are they supposed to pay their rent? How are they supposed to work?

    I think that it's not realistic to shield the vulnerable, because they are a part of the community.

    In addition to that, the assumption that young healthy people do not get severe disease from COVID is just incorrect. While there's a lower mortality rate, a significant number of those people do end up in the hospital. And we also know that some people develop what's being called long COVID.

    They have effects of the acute infection that, after they recover, they're still feeling those effects and they're experiencing chronic disease. We don't really know how frequent that is. So it's a very dangerous proposition to say that it's OK for young healthy people to just get infected, as long as we shield the vulnerable, which we will not be able to realistically do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Angela, one of the reasons this is so attractive to people is, we know that there's not a vaccine imminent to provide stronger immunity. Cases are now rising in the majority of states.

    There's no more appetite for more lockdowns. So, really, some folks are asking, what's the harm in states or counties giving this a try?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    Well, there is a huge harm, potentially, because, right now, even in the places that have been hardest-hit, only, at most, about 20 percent of the people have antibodies, suggesting that only about 20 percent of the people have immunity.

    That's nowhere near the threshold that we would need to achieve herd immunity. So, you would have to have millions more people get infected. That would mean millions more people could die. I think that that is an unacceptable price to pay for the benefits of herd immunity.

    The other issue is that the — there is a false dichotomy here, that the idea is either herd immunity through mass infection or restrictive lockdowns everywhere. And that's just simply not true. There are a number of non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as mask-wearing, distancing, avoiding crowded gatherings, et cetera, that can be implemented without doing a full lockdown.

    So, those are not the only two options available to us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Angela, we have senior White House officials holding up this petition as something that buttresses their point of view

    You have the president, who's mentioned herd immunity before. He accidentally referred to it as herd mentality. And you also have a senior adviser to the president, Dr. Scott Atlas, who has mentioned this before as a possible approach.

    What does it say to you that, from the senior most levels of this government, this idea is now being held up or at least discussed as a possible strategy?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    It's very concerning to me, but it's not particularly surprising.

    Since the springtime, President Trump has advocated for not taking the pandemic as seriously. He has been very eager to reopen in a very unrestricted way. And Dr. Atlas is really not qualified to be assessing this, assessing it scientifically. Dr. Atlas is a neuroradiologist. He has had no previous experience with infectious diseases like a respiratory pandemic of a coronavirus.

    So, I think that really this is being used to prop up political points that the White House would like to make, rather than being something that has been evaluated objectively and found to be the best science possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University School of Public Health joining us tonight.

    Thank you very much for your time.

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    Thank you, Amna.

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