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Is it time to Revisit Herd Immunity?

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Coronavirus cases in the US are surging again. This surge has started prompting further debate over whether to keep the economy open or close up shop. As more and more of the US population takes on COVID, the controversial topic of “herd immunity” is back on the docket.

What is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity is the idea that, once enough of the population gains immunity to an illness (after catching it and recovering from it), the whole population is effectively immune to it. This happens because the virus cannot effectively travel among the population since people who are immune to it can no longer carry it.

Some leaders, such as the United Kingdom, were initially counting on herd immunity to carry them through the worst of the virus. Once most of the population had caught it, leaders postulated, the virus would no longer pose an issue. The initial months would be rough, with hospitals packed and many deaths. However, after these few months, life could resume as normal.

This idea was scrapped because the data suggested that nearly 70% of a population would need to contract the illness in order to achieve herd immunity. The lives lost and pressure on hospitals would be simply too great to justify doing nothing. As a result, virtually all countries, including the United Kingdom, chose quarantine.

US Braces for Second Peak

That was then, and this is now. The United States is gearing up for a new peak, this one likely stronger than the last. Several states, including California, Texas, and Florida, have seen all-time highs of daily new cases this week. As states open back up, the coronavirus has come back with a vengeance. Unlike in March, however, Americans are very resistant to staying home.

The economic and emotional costs of shelter-in-place orders appear to outweigh the risk of catching coronavirus. Americans, both Republican and Democrat, are very resistant to the idea of once again shuttering businesses, staying indoors, and putting their lives on hold. So, many are returning to the idea of herd immunity as a way to move forward this year. New data makes an encouraging case, with some concerning caveats.

New Data Gives Mixed Signals

A new study has been published, suggesting that instead of 70% of the population, herd immunity could be achieved with just 43% having caught the virus. Some estimates say that over 20% of New Yorkers have antibodies, not far from the theoretical figure for herd immunity. If 43% is truly the magic number, then young adults (who don’t live with older folks) could safely go back to business as usual, risk suffering through the virus, and gradually achieve a general immunity for the country.

However, there is one major caveat. COVID-19 is a mysterious virus, and puzzling data continues to come out regarding the nature of the bug. A new study from China has indicated that roughly 10% of recovered patients lost their antibodies within a few weeks. The rate was even higher for young, asymptomatic patients. They are exactly the ones who would be expected to bear the brunt of the disease to achieve herd immunity.

Much like the virus itself, when it comes to herd immunity, there is a lot we still don’t know. If only 43% of Americans need to contract COVID-19 to protect the larger population, it may be worth considering a full reopening, at least for young people. However, as new data suggests, that immunity could be short-lived. For now, the frustrations, fear, and loss of brought about by the coronavirus pandemic are here to stay.

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