Covid: 'Herd immunity' argument is based on two false assumptions and young people should be very afraid of this virus – Professor Harry Burns

As we experience a second wave of Covid-19, voices advocating the idea of herd immunity are getting louder.
Young people have reasons to fear Covid-19 even if it does not kill them (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Young people have reasons to fear Covid-19 even if it does not kill them (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Young people have reasons to fear Covid-19 even if it does not kill them (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As new restrictions are introduced in Scotland, those most affected by them are suggesting we should let the virus spread through the population to the point where everyone is either immune… or dead.

The concept of herd immunity is used to guide vaccination policy. It is based on the idea that once sufficient people have been vaccinated against a virus, it can no longer spread through a population.

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But, we don’t have a vaccine against Covid-19. Without it, herd immunity means many will die. The fact that most deaths have occurred in the over 70s doesn’t mean that younger people have nothing to fear from the virus. They may not die, but the long-term consequences of the infection may make their lives miserable.

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Many viruses have long-term consequences. Some common cancers are caused by viral infection in early life. It will be some years before we learn whether or not Covid-19 is associated with an increased risk of cancer.

In the meantime, studies have shown that some infected patients develop long-term illness. The virus causes inflammation of the blood vessels. The heart, lungs, kidneys and liver can be damaged. Symptoms can include persistent fever, chronic fatigue, breathing difficulties, irregular heart beats, intestinal problems, brain damage, hallucinations and memory loss.

It seems that most people with these chronic symptoms were previously healthy and many are significantly younger than 60.

Some clinicians are predicting that survivors of lung inflammation due to the virus may need lung transplants in later years. This is not a virus to be taken lightly.

The herd-immunity proponents seem to think that the restrictions imposed to suppress infection are unnecessarily severe. They seem to feel that the damage done to the economy is more worrying than the thousands of lives already lost in the UK.

They argue that young people should be allowed to go about their lives normally. If those young people are infected and pass the infection on to their older relatives and it kills them, then that’s OK. It’s a price worth paying to keep the economy going!

The herd immunity people even have mathematical models to support their argument. These models show a lack of understanding of the illness. They seem to be based on two false assumptions.

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Once you have recovered they assume you are immune to further infection. Secondly, they assume that the outcome of the infection is one of two end-points – you are either recovered or you are dead. Neither assumption is likely to be valid.

The reports of people being reinfected and the evidence of long-term physical damage in survivors makes it essential we do what we can to limit the spread and prevent deaths in the elderly and serious complications in the young.

Total lockdown suppresses transmission but damages livelihoods and mental well-being. Restriction on indoor gatherings, wearing masks in public, social distancing all work to reduce the risk but only if people follow advice. The Scottish Government is advocating a balanced approach which is more humane and scientifically valid than the pursuit of herd immunity. We should look after each other and adhere to guidance.

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