Herd immunity will be critical in the long term to end the pandemic, a health expert has said as he responded to comments by the Health Secretary that it is “a flawed goal”.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said herd immunity should not be discounted but said there was currently not enough exposure for it to work in the short term.
His comments come after Matt Hancock dismissed the strategy as “flawed” without a vaccine, and that it was “simply not possible” to segregate the old and the vulnerable on the way to herd immunity.
Prof Woolhouse told the PA news agency: “Going forward, we would expect more people to be exposed at some stage or another and that immunity would be important, whether natural or through a vaccine.
“Herd immunity is the way this thing ends, one way or another, it is critical to what happens to Covid-19 in the long term.
“Whether he (Mr Hancock) calls it a goal or not, it will end with herd immunity.”
He said the “end point” for the virus may be years or decades away but that there is “no way” for global eradication of the disease.
Prof Woolhouse described the Health Secretary’s comments about it being impossible to segregate the old and the vulnerable as a “tremendous fallacy”.
“I don’t know, or how Matt Hancock knows, it’s not possible, we have to do it to some degree because those are the people who are at risk of getting seriously ill and dying,” he said.
“We should be paying much more attention to protecting the vulnerable and elderly.
“I worry that that statement is impetus to give up on the idea of protecting people who need protecting.
“I worry that fallacy is being promoted in this brief statement.”
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Hancock criticised the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, which called for an easing of lockdown measures in a switch of strategy to a herd immunity approach, allowing most people to return to normal life while protecting the most vulnerable.
Mr Hancock said: “It says that if enough people get Covid, we will reach herd immunity. This is not true.
“Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, like measles and malaria and Aids and flu, and with increasing evidence of reinfection, we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to Covid, even if everyone caught it.
“Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it, which we can’t.”
Dr Rupert Beale, group leader of the cell biology of infection laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, agreed with Mr Hancock.
He said: “Other coronaviruses can reinfect people, and there is accumulating evidence this is happening with SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19).
“It’s therefore unlikely that even with a high proportion of people having been infected that there would be good protection via herd immunity.
“Most experts expect that protection via herd immunity will only be possible if we have an effective vaccine.”
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) October 13, 2020
Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said the Health Secretary was right to address the flawed concepts underpinning the Great Barrington Declaration.
The declaration, which was said to have been signed by more than 15,000 scientists and medical practitioners, was found by Sky News to contain numerous false names, including “Dr Johnny Bananas” and “Professor Cominic Dummings”.
Dr Griffin said: “Whilst we are still beginning to understand SARS-CoV2 (Covid-19) and how our bodies respond to it, it is clear that our immune systems are unlikely to achieve long-lasting protective immunity without the aid of a vaccine.
“Moreover, it is fundamentally wrong to segregate society in the way suggested by this document, as to do so invokes serious ethical concerns regarding both restricting the lives of those most vulnerable to Covid as well as assuming that the rest of society are prepared to accept the costs of letting the virus rip through.”
He added: “The human costs of this ideology are simply too high and the unlikely aims lack supportive scientific evidence.”
Meanwhile, Conservative former minister Steve Baker said a vaccine may not be found nor be effective.
He suggested finding an alternative strategy between the Great Barrington Declaration and what is currently taking place.