Herd immunity call backed by British academics

By Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent
·4-min read

People who are less vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19 should be allowed to return to normal life, a group of British experts has said.

A new declaration, which is earning thousands of signatures from medical professionals, academics and the general public, calls for a herd immunity approach to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic while protecting the most vulnerable populations.

Academics from the universities of Oxford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Cambridge, Sussex, York, St George’s University of London, Strathclyde, Leicester, Queen Mary University of London and the University of East Anglia are among experts from around the world who have signed the declaration.

It comes after recent remarks from the leader of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, who said that asking all over-65s to shield to slow the transmission of the second wave of coronavirus would be “age-based apartheid”.

Watch: What is herd immunity?

And another expert said the declaration ignores the growing evidence on long Covid – whereby thousands of fit and young people who contract the virus have been left with debilitating symptoms months after a mild infection.

Professor Jeremy Rossman pointed out that research suggests that protective antibody responses may “decay rapidly” and that there have been cases of re-infection of the virus.

Meanwhile Sweden, which adopted a herd immunity approach, was “not able to successfully protect the vulnerable population”, he added.

The so-called Great Barrington declaration states: “As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing Covid-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.

“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.

“Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.

“We know that vulnerability to death from Covid-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, Covid-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

“As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimise mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.

“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”

It adds: “Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practised by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open.

Watch: How is coronavirus treated?

“Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”

Commenting on the declaration, Prof Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, said: “Unfortunately, this declaration ignores three critical aspects that could result in significant impacts to health and lives.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“First, we still do not know if herd immunity is possible to achieve. Herd immunity relies on lasting immunological protection from coronavirus re-infection; however, we have heard many recent cases of re-infection occurring and some research suggests protective antibody responses may decay rapidly.

“Second, the declaration focuses only on the risk of death from Covid-19 but ignores the growing awareness of long Covid, that many healthy young adults with mild infections are experiencing protracted symptoms and long-term disability.

“Third, countries that have forgone lockdown restrictions in favour of personal responsibility and focused protection of the elderly, such as Sweden, were not able to successfully protect the vulnerable population.”

Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, and of the University of Oxford, said: “The main signatories include many accomplished scientists and I read it with interest. I will not be signing it however.

“The declaration risks the same error we have seen with the UK’s track trace and isolate scheme – one can promise a scheme that is very easy to describe but is hard to deliver.”

He added that the declaration omits some “critical scientific information”.