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Sweden’s ‘herd immunity’ did not work

There’s a theory that if you let the people go out during the pandemic, it will build up immunity from the disease but it will also be needing to sacrifice other lives to suffer to reap the benefits of the herd immunity..

This is a strategy that some scientists recommend and urge a government to implement herd immunity to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. All strategies that have been adopted so far assume that the coronavirus and its spectre would disappear in a few weeks or, at the most, a few months.

This is wishful thinking. The World Health Organization chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said in a recent interview that it would take four to five years to control COVID-19.

Scientists think that COVID-19 will most likely be controlled by a vaccine or herd immunity. The most optimistic scenario is a vaccine within 12 to 18 months. That will have to be followed with mass production and distribution to meet the global need for vaccinating the world’s 7.8 billion people. 

Herd immunity, on the other hand, can be acquired quicker. A study by researchers at Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy and Princeton University has suggested that India can attain herd immunity among 60% of its population within seven months — or as early as December — if it allows people under 60 to get back to normal life.

India has the most desirable demography to aim for herd immunity: 82% of the population is less than 50, who, if infected, will have mild symptoms; their crude case fatality (fatality if infected) is less than 0.2%.

There are costs and benefits to adopting this strategy. While it will increase death from COVID-19 in the short run, it will also save millions of families from hunger and poverty. It will rescue the economy from a free fall. 

If COVID-19 is with us for 4-5 years, as Dr Swaminathan predicts, survival strategies cannot be based on economic and travel lockdowns. More people will die from malnourishment; lost livelihoods will become the cause of economic misery and even death.

But many countries are reluctant to even introduce herd immunity to their citizens. The public are also divided. I myself, haven’t heard the Philippine government of even suggesting herd immunity in the country.

They must have good reasons why they don’t bring up the topic of herd immunity.

But eased lockdown are already in placed in select areas in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and other high-risks urban and provincial areas allowing people to go back to work but with limitations. Even workplace and some establishments operate in accordance with the quarantine protocols.

In Sweden, they decided early on in the pandemic to forgo lockdown in the hope of achieving broad immunity to the coronavirus. While social distancing was promoted, the government allowed bars, restaurants, salons, gyms and schools to stay open.

Initially, Sweden saw death rates from COVID-19 that were similar to other European nations that had closed down their economies. But now the Scandinavian nation’s daily death toll per 1 million people is 8.71 compared to the United States’ 4.59, according to online publication Our World in Data. Sweden’s mortality rate is the highest in Europe.

“I’d say it hasn’t worked out so well,” said Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “I think the mortality in Norway is something like ten-fold lower. That’s the real comparator.” (Norway’s daily death rate is less than .01 per 1 million people.)

“If you let this go or don’t try very hard or go about it in somewhat of a more restrained way rather than we have here, this is the price you pay,” Rutherford said. “Maybe it didn’t hurt businesses, but you have twice the mortality rate of the United States. All those people who died were part of families and they were citizens and part of the fabric of Swedish society. And now they’re gone because of a policy that hasn’t worked out quite the way they thought it would.”

Scientists estimate herd immunity for the coronavirus is reached when 70-90% of the population becomes immune to a virus, either by becoming infected or getting a protective vaccine.

Despite its relaxed response, Sweden is nowhere near to hitting that goal. Tests on 1,118 Stockholm residents carried out by Sweden’s Public Health Agency over one week in late April showed that only 7.3% had developed the antibodies needed to stave off the disease.

The country’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said the number was a “little lower” than expected “but not remarkably lower, maybe one or a couple of percent,” CNN reported. But the public health agency previously said it expected about 25% of the population to have been infected by May 1, according to the Guardian.

“I think herd immunity is a long way off, if we ever reach it,” Björn Olsen, a professor of infectious medicine at Uppsala University, told Reuters after the release of the antibody findings.

Other countries that instituted shelter-in-place measures realized antibody counts in their populations that are not that far behind Sweden’s. In Spain, for example, 5% of the population had developed antibodies as of May 14, according to a government epidemiological study.

UCSF’s Rutherford estimated that 2.5% of the U.S. population has been infected with the coronavirus. To possibly reach herd immunity, “you’re going to have to get close to 100% of the population being antibody-positive,” he said.

“Now there’s a tremendous cost in mortality for doing that, and there’s lots of other strategies. It’s not this or a vaccine, those aren’t the choices,” Rutherford said.

He said we can keep doing non-pharmaceutical interventions like contact tracing, mask wearing and isolation quarantines, but also develop drugs that work better treating people who already have the infection so they don’t require critical care in a hospital.

Sweden’s government insists that it does not have a herd immunity strategy, but Swedish virolgist Lena Einhorn said that “they have denied it, but under their breaths they have acknowledged” the strategy, according to France24.

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