News & Politics

WHO Chief Calls Herd Immunity 'Unethical'

(Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the media on Sunday that he believes the strategy that some countries have proposed to use to combat the coronavirus pandemic known as “herd immunity” is “unethical.”

“Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical,” he said, NBC News reported.

Spoken like a true health bureaucrat.

Advocates for using some form of “herd immunity” to deal with the pandemic often cite Sweden as a model. Sweden’s often-misunderstood “experiment” in battling the coronavirus involved all the usual precautions but with fewer, more targeted lockdowns.

The Economist:

Fans of Sweden are right to point out that, in the first phase of the disease, the government had a light touch. Although it banned large groups and issued plenty of health advice, it rejected blanket lockdowns. But that was not a particularly successful approach. Sweden has a fatality rate of around 60 per 100,000, ten times that of Finland and Norway, which did lock themselves down. Swedes’ freedom did not spare the economy, even though many deaths were among elderly people no longer working. Output in the second quarter alone shrank by 8.3%—also worse than the other Nordic countries. A high caseload is bad for the economy.

What opponents of Sweden’s “light touch” lockdown strategy fail to point out is that there has been little or no evidence of a “second wave” of infections. But was herd immunity responsible?

Sweden’s new strategy for the second phase converges with Germany’s. Contrary to some claims, this is not dependent on herd immunity—Sweden still has a large population of susceptible people. Rather, it entails rapid large-scale testing and contact-tracing so as to identify and suppress outbreaks early. This is accompanied by a clear, consistent message that is sustainable because it gives people autonomy. Those are the building blocks of successful anti-covid-19 strategies everywhere.

Are you seeing this, Governor Whitmer?

Indeed, South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, and other nations that have emerged from the pandemic share some common traits in their successful approach; massive testing and contact tracing and rules that treat people like adults, not small children.

But Tedros thinks like a public health advocate, not a politician. And the difference is that politicians weigh choices while public health officials see no choice; every life must be saved.

NBC News:

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak,” Tedros said.

Tedros said that too little was known about immunity to COVID-19 to know if herd immunity is even achievable.

That part is true. We don’t even know yet how long immunity to the coronavirus lasts. How many “booster shots” of a vaccine will people need? Will patients become reinfected? What we don’t know yet about the coronavirus could fill a library the size of the Library of Congress.

That makes “follow the science” as a rallying cry irresponsible and ignorant. What “science” knew about the coronavirus last March is largely inoperative today. What will “science” know about the coronavirus six months from now? What we’ve seen in nations that have emerged from the pandemic successfully is that massive, continuous lockdowns, and draconian rules that try to micro-manage people’s lives are not the answer.

But neither is unfettered “herd immunity.” I can see where there might be a choice to employ a herd immunity strategy in some future pandemic where the choice might save lives. But with many other options available, herd immunity is not one of the better ones.

We’re going to have to learn to live with the coronavirus. If we’re going to approach the problem solely as a public health crisis, panicking at every outbreak, mask-shaming people who choose to go maskless, we will never recover.

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