On April 7, 2020, about 95% of Americans were on lockdown. With 42 states under stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants switched to take-out only, gyms and salons closed their doors, and schools transitioned to online learning.
Across the globe, it was much of the same — businesses and schools closed, Zoom memberships up.
In Sweden, it was an entirely different scene. Bars and restaurants were still serving customers, and schools remained open for children under age 16. While there was a ban on mass gatherings and visits to elderly care centers, and social distancing was encouraged, life on the streets looked as if COVID-19 was no different than the common cold.
This left people around the world wondering: Why wasn’t Sweden going into lockdown.
The answer is that they were trying to achieve natural herd immunity.
Back in the US, many lockdown skeptics wanted to follow suit. But while it may have been a well-intentioned approach, scientists and medical professionals are increasingly issuing stern warnings that trying to reach herd immunity naturally could be disastrous.
Herd Immunity 101
Herd immunity is when a significant percentage of the population is immune to a disease, whether through a vaccine or a prior illness, making the spread of the disease unlikely. The percentage of people who need to be immune varies from disease to disease. For example, it’s estimated that about 93 to 95% of the population needs to be immune to measles to stop that from spreading. The percentage is unknown for COVID-19, although it’s predicted to be at least 70-80%.
In the case of COVID-19, we can take vaccines off the table (for now). A vaccine is still months away and it will take time to distribute. That’s why some people believe that the best option isn’t to wait around for a vaccine and take preventive measures in the meantime.
The basis of the concept of building herd immunity the natural way is through antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that the body develops after having already been exposed to a disease and can protect the body from getting the disease again.
The more people who have antibodies, the less the disease can spread from person to person. Once a certain percentage of the population has those antibodies, they can protect others who don’t yet have the antibodies from getting infected.
Antibodies and COVID-19
At the moment, it seems like the antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection provide immunity from getting it again. However, it hasn’t been entirely proven — and even if they do provide some immunity, there isn’t a consensus yet on for how long the immunity lasts.
There isn’t a very reliable way to test for antibodies. Early tests revealed a false positive rate of up to 50%. This means that if you test positive for antibodies, there’s still a significant chance that you do not actually have them, and you are not immune.
Source: Cleveland Clinic
On the surface, achieving herd immunity naturally for COVID-19 might seem ideal for several reasons. It doesn’t include mandated social distancing, which means fewer disruptions to the economy and to individuals’ lives. Even if full herd immunity doesn’t occur, a higher percentage of people having antibodies could potentially make a community more resilient to a second or third wave of the virus.
Below the surface, there’s a much different story.
Natural Immunity Isn’t Easy — And Comes With Steep Collateral Damage
We’ve heard time and time again that COVID-19 is severely contagious. That is demonstrably true, but it doesn’t mean that everyone is getting it.
As of July 5, there have been 2,841,906 confirmed or presumed positive cases of COVID-19 in the US. That translates to less than 1% of the population. Based on the fact that testing has been slow and not widespread, and that many people are asymptomatic so might not get tested, it’s almost guaranteed that the true number of cases is higher.
Still, most estimates of how many people in the US have had COVID-19 and are likely immune to it hover around 1-2%. Even a recent estimate that closer to 24 million people have been infected is only 5 to 8% of the population.
We have already seen more than 129,000 US deaths from the virus. And that is only at 1-8% of the population having had the virus. Remember — we most likely need to get to at least 70% to even have hope that we have reached herd immunity. Imagine how many deaths would occur by the time we reached that number naturally.
And in Sweden? After months of a laissez-faire approach to fighting coronavirus, only about 6 to 7% of the population has gotten it. Sweden has one of the highest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world and cases are still on the rise.
It’s Not Just About Death Rates
While the death toll of COVID-19 is high, most people do recover from it. However, that doesn’t mean that they got off easy:
- Recovery often doesn’t happen overnight — some people are sick and out of work for weeks.
- Severe cases can land someone in the hospital, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills in the process.
- Patients who land in the hospital are being admitted quicker than they are being discharged, often occupying beds in the intensive care unit (ICU) for long periods of time — reducing resources for other people who need non-COVID-19 related care, like car accident victims or patients having heart attacks.
- Survivors of COVID-19 may have long-term effects of the virus, even if they only had a mild case. Studies from across the world have shown survivors spending months recovering from symptoms like debilitating shortness of breath and fatigue, and some researchers believe that survivors may have permanent lung damage.
Even if people are asymptomatic or have very mild cases, they can still pass it on to others who won’t be quite as lucky.
The bottom line: Keeping COVID-19 away from as many people as possible can prevent serious consequences. Purposely exposing people to it or encouraging the attitude of, “I might as well get it now and get it over with” can put lives in danger.
The reality is that until there is a vaccine, herd immunity is going to be hard to come by. And if we do achieve it naturally, we’re going to pay a hefty price.
But the good news is that developing a vaccine is the top priority at research labs around the world. The best and brightest minds on the planet are working around the clock to ensure that we can get a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible.
Until then — stay home, social distance, wash your hands — you know the drill by now.