“Herd immunity is not going to be possible until there is a vaccine, unless we are prepared to accept an enormous human toll…”
The way Bangladesh has relaxed the lockdown restrictions recently allowing people to come out of homes has raised the question whether the authorities are unofficially heading for the idea of achieving herd immunity to fight the coronavirus.
If anybody hopes to use the controversial medical concept to fight Covid-19, they should also know of its dire consequences, warn local and international experts.
The herd immunity concept is a gamble with people's lives. This is a strategy that gives the economy priority over public health, where money becomes more important than lives.
Let us have a look at Sweden.
Currently, Sweden is believed to be trying to activate herd immunity among its population, which, most scientists believe, is achieved when more than 60 percent of the population has had the virus.
While other European countries such as Italy, Spain and France have sheltered at home, Sweden has stood out as an exception by not enforcing lockdown that shuttered the economies in other countries.
The country has allowed the Swedes to continue eating in restaurants, shopping and going to work, but also urging them to maintain social distancing.
In doing so, it has developed a model, but it has also created this controversy that it is a trade-off between more disease and less economic damage.
Even though the Swedish government has not officially declared the goal of achieving herd immunity, its broader strategy indicates it is aiming for it.
The chief epidemiologist at Sweden's Public Health Agency, has projected that the city of Stockholm could reach herd immunity as early as this month.
But what is the price for this? It looks like Sweden has paid heavily for the so-called herd immunity.
The downside to the strategy is that the virus has claimed a far higher percentage of lives in Sweden than in its neighbouring countries that are locked down. As of May 10, Sweden had about 31 deaths per 100,000, versus Denmark with 9 and Norway with 4, according to a Bloomberg analysis.
The fatality rate in Sweden is even higher than that of the USA which is 24 per 100,000.
The UK had adopted to go for herd immunity initially and realised its mistake soon enough. It then discarded it early in the pandemic after projections showed its health care system would be overwhelmed by the resulting hospitalisations.
Two latest studies conducted in France and Spain, two of the countries hardest hit by the virus, have come up with conclusions that have dealt major blows to the hopes of herd immunity.
A mere 4.4 per cent of the French population – 2.8 million people – have been infected, according to the findings of the Pasteur Institute.
Even in the worst hit parts of France, the eastern area and the Paris region, the infection rate only reached between nine and 10 per cent on average, the research found.
Around 65 per cent of the population should be immune if the country wants to control the pandemic by the sole means of immunity, it said.
However, the studies' findings suggest that "without a vaccine, the herd immunity alone will not be enough to avoid a second wave at the end of the lockdown. Efficient control measures must thus be upheld after May 11," reports The Telegraph.
Now, France has focused on ramping up testing as it plans to conduct 1 lakh tests per day.
France's overall death toll from the virus has risen to 27,074, and the total number of cases officially stands at 1.70 lakh.
A new study in Spain produced similar preliminary results, revealing that five per cent of the population has been exposed to the virus and developed antibodies.
As of Wednesday, Spain had recorded just under 2.20 lakh cases of coronavirus, with an official death toll of 27,104.
As can be seen easily that an infection rate of only five percent of the population in France and Spain has brought dire consequences for the countries' population with more than 54,000 deaths combined. What would be the consequences if they had opted for herd immunity allowing more than 60 percent of their population to be infected?
Experts say that the world is not ready for herd immunity as yet. "Herd immunity is not going to be possible until there is a vaccine, unless we are prepared to accept an enormous human toll," says Pere Godoy, the president of the Spanish Epidemiological Society.
Last month, a team of researchers at Princeton University and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, a public health advocacy group based in New Delhi and Washington, has pointed out India to be a place where this strategy could be successful because its disproportionately young population would face less risk of hospitalisation and death, according to a Bloomberg report.
But the concept has its inherent risks.
Allowing people to become infected will inevitably bring many more patients to the hospitals. The researchers say India will have to urgently expand critical care and isolation-bed capacity to ensure that multiple waves of patients don't become casualties before herd immunity is reached.
The Modi government did not buy the concept and instead extended lockdown measures.
The reason behind the Modi government's decision is clear and supported by scientific knowledge.
We can look at the latest comment made by the World Health Organisation for our decision making.
The WHO has condemned the "dangerous" concept of herd immunity without reservations.
It has said "no-one is safe until everyone is safe" and it is "dangerous" to think that countries can "magically reach herd immunity".
Health experts in Bangladesh, also agree with the observations of the WHO.
Dr M Mushtuq Husain, Public health expert and Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) advisor, said herd immunity for Covid-19 is not possible in any country. There is no evidence that herd immunity is developing in a country, he said.
Lockdown restrictions are being eased as the poorest people are suffering, he said. If poor people could have been brought under an umbrella of food and financial assistance, the restrictions would not be needed to be relaxed, he noted.
The lower rate of infection detection and mortality may have lulled policy makers into the mindset that the virulence of Covid-19 has been weakened in India and Bangladesh and that might have been a factor in defense of easing the lockdown but there is no evidence to support that claim.
Instead, experts are of the opinion that the low number of tests is not exposing the real depth and breadth of the infection.
In Bangladesh the total number of infected was 18,863 as of 14 May out of a total population of 16.80 crore, which is less than 0.01 percent of the population. Yet the healthcare system is overwhelmed. What will happen if we allow more than 60 percent of our population, more than 10 crore, to be infected to achieve herd immunity? The idea simply boggles the mind.
Dr Jahidur Rahman, assistant professor of the virology department at the Shaheed Suhrawardy Hospital says herd immunity cannot be a strategy and adopting it may bring tragic consequences. "Countries are grasping at the straw of herd immunity as they cannot get any remedy," he said.
We may also note the recent noteworthy warning of two researchers of Johns Hopkins University for a more clear understanding of the failure of the concept of herd immunity.
In an article, David Dowdy and Gypsyamber D'Souza, from the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, write: "Early herd immunity is a dangerous misconception. There will be no such thing this year."
So the idea of achieving herd immunity in Bangladesh is nothing but a dangerous misguided conception.