Mon | Oct 18, 2021

Peter Espeut | Is COVID-19 herd immunity a myth?

Published:Friday | July 30, 2021 | 12:05 AM

Last week Thursday (July 22) was the 500th day since the first COVID-19 infection was confirmed in Jamaica; on that day confirmed infections totalled 51,686 (an average of more than 100 per day) and deaths deemed to be due to the virus numbered 1,...

Last week Thursday (July 22) was the 500th day since the first COVID-19 infection was confirmed in Jamaica; on that day confirmed infections totalled 51,686 (an average of more than 100 per day) and deaths deemed to be due to the virus numbered 1,168 (an average of more than two per day). It is believed that many thousands of infections and deaths have gone undetected.

Only on eight days in the more than 200 days since January 1 did the positivity rate dip below five (when we are told we can feel the pandemic is under control), whereas the positivity rate has been over 20 on 68 days, and over 30 on 35 days. On 11 days (so far) in 2021 the positivity rate has been over 40.

The job of the spinners in government is to convince us that they are doing a good job in controlling the pandemic, and to paint a rosy picture of the future; the job of the media is to give the real picture.

When the public is presented with a rosy picture, they will relax on observing the protocols, and then cases and deaths will increase. It is not in the best interests of the people of Jamaica to paint a rosy picture, especially when it does not accord with reality.

What is HERD IMMUNITY?

Over the last many months we have been told that the way out of the pandemic is vaccinations, so that when enough of us are inoculated, we will achieve “herd immunity”. And when we achieve this “herd immunity”, we can go back to normal. What is “herd immunity”? Is it possible with the vaccines available to us?

Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected – not just those who are immune.

Herd immunity is achievable in two ways: First, when enough people in the population have become infected with the disease, and have recovered after developing antibodies which prevent them from being infected again and spreading the disease to others; and second, herd immunity also can be reached when enough people have been vaccinated against a disease and have developed protective antibodies which makes them immune from future infection, and therefore unable to spread the disease to others.

Sad to say, it seems that with COVID-19 neither route to herd immunity is possible. Our actual experience with the disease is that individuals can be infected more than once, and spread the disease to others. It seems that an infected person does develop effective antibodies against the virus which may prevent them getting seriously ill the second time around, but they will still be able to spread the infection to others. A recent study out of Oxford University showed that antibodies offered about a six-month window of protection for study subjects.

VACCINES DON’T PREVENT INFECTION

It is also well known that the available vaccines that address COVID-19 (including the Oxford, AstraZeneca which I have received) do not prevent the recipient from becoming infected and spreading the disease; what it does is prevent serious symptoms from developing, making hospitalisation unnecessary, and death unlikely. This in itself is a good reason to become vaccinated. Immunity may be impossible, but it is good to know that becoming infected with COVID-19 won’t kill you.

And so whereas “herd immunity” may be achievable with infections like measles and whooping cough, we do not yet have the pharmacology or the immunology to prevent us being infected with COVID-19 and spreading it to others.

Ordinary flu is also caused by a coronavirus, and we know that we can get the flu many times during our lives. Some people take flu shots every year to achieve some protection, but the antibodies produced don’t last forever, and the flu virus mutates anyway, requiring new prophylaxis.

With the present technology, the flu will be with us forever; it is likely that COVID-19 will be with us for a long, long time. For this disease, “herd immunity” is a myth. Even if every Jamaican is fully vaccinated, they can still become infected and spread their infection to others.

The health authorities need to stop spreading false hope about immunity, and must encourage permanent shifts in our lifestyles that will save lives. We will have to learn to do things differently, like election campaigns, and music festivals.

The truth is that right now the pandemic is not under control; we need to get our positivity rate below five, and to maintain it for some time before we open up the economy. The livelihoods must shift so we can save lives.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and natural scientist. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com