Here’s what herd immunity means and why it’s controversial

WHO says vaccines are best way to achieve herd immunity

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President Joe Biden believes that the U.S. could reach herd immunity by the summer.

The president made this assertion in January as he upped his goal for vaccinations within his first 100 days in office from 100 million to 150 million.

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“But it’s going to be a logistical challenge that exceeds anything we’ve ever tried in this country,” Biden said. “But I think we can do that. I feel confident that by summer we’re going to be well on our way to heading toward herd immunity and increasing the access for people who aren’t on the first, on the list, all the way going down to children and how we deal with that.”

The term herd immunity is one that’s been thrown around a lot during the pandemic, becoming the source of some controversy when it comes to how the coronavirus has been handled.

Herd immunity, also called population immunity, is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune, either through vaccination or immunity developed through a previous infection, according to the World Health Organization. Put more simply, as more people are protected from a disease, it becomes harder for it to spread from person to person.

The controversy comes in two ways. First, there has been disagreement over how the U.S. should reach herd immunity.

Some have pushed a theory of herd immunity through infection. It’s an approach taken by Sweden, which issued few restrictions on its population while still advocating masks and social distancing. Many health leaders have criticized the plan as dangerous and ineffective.

The WHO has come out strongly against this type of herd immunity, advocating for a vaccination strategy instead.

“Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It’s not an option.”

The organization’s website adds, “Herd immunity against COVID-19 should be achieved by protecting people through vaccination, not by exposing them to the pathogen that causes the disease.”

The WHO points to the fact that while most people who get infected with COVID-19 develop an immune response, it is unknown how long that immunity lasts. The organization adds little is also known about the long-term health impacts of the disease for those who experience severe cases.

On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a roundtable on public health in Tallahassee with Sunetra Gupta, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff and Dr. Scott Atlas, all of whom have advocated for eased coronavirus restrictions.

The governor asked Atlas — who served on the coronavirus task force during former President Donald Trump’s administration — about his thoughts on the role of infections in reaching heard immunity.

“Dr. Atlas there was — the WHO had had the definition of herd immunity, which is what we’re all trying to achieve with the vaccinations for example, and it said that — I think was a pretty standard definition — it’s like once you have a certain amount of people through a combination of an infection conferred immunity and or vaccine conferred immunity, then you get to a point where the disease really takes a nosedive,” DeSantis said. “They change that to exclude any mention of infection conferred immunity, kind of, it was strange that they did that, I think they’ve now had to change it back. But what do you think about the resistance to just acknowledging that this is just the fact of how these viruses operate.”

“It really wasn’t a completely novel virus. We had decades of experience with coronaviruses. We knew that fundamental biology means if you get an infection from a virus, it’s highly likely that you will have some sort of protection,” Atlas said. “I don’t know why this idea that herd immunity, which is a biological phenomenon from enough people that get infected and or have vaccination protection, became controversial. That was just a complete distortion of what people were saying and complete, really, throwing away the fundamental knowledge that we had.”

A Washington Post report in August 2020 said that Atlas had urged then-president Trump to take an infection-based approach to achieving herd immunity. Atlas would later deny that report, according to CNN, during a news conference in Florida.

“I’ve never advocated that strategy,” Atlas said

Trump appeared to believe in a strategy of herd immunity through infection, talking about it during a town hall event during the 2020 presidential campaign.

“We’re going to be OK. And it is going away. And it’s probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccine. It would go away without the vaccine,” Trump said.

When asked to clarify whether Trump meant the virus would go away without a vaccine he added, “Sure, over a period of time. Sure, with time it goes... And you’ll develop, you’ll develop like a herd (immunity). It’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen, that will all happen.”

Former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany later stated, “Herd immunity (is) not a policy of the White House.”

Another controversial issue when it comes to herd immunity is what percentage of the population needs immunity before herd immunity is reached.

Early estimates put the range at 60% to 70%, but that was based on early data from China and Italy, according to reporting from The New York Times. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admits that it is not known what percentage of people would need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19.

The WHO points out those percentages can vary from disease to disease. For measles, which is thought to be the most infectious disease, that threshold is a 95% vaccination rate, which then protects the remaining 5% who are not vaccinated. The WHO also gives polio as an example, which requires 80% of the population to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

Both the WHO and the CDC continue to research herd immunity for COVID-19 and say they will provide more information on the subject as it becomes available.


About the Author:

Thomas Mates produces News 6 at 5:30 and the podcast Florida Foodie. Thomas is originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania and worked in Portland, Oregon before moving to Central Florida in August 2018. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Journalism in 2010.