COVID-19: WHO chief calls herd immunity approach to pandemic ‘unethical’

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - WHO Chief

The head of the World Health Organization has warned against deliberately allowing coronavirus to spread in the hope of achieving so-called herd immunity, saying the idea is unethical.

“Herd immunity is a concept used for vaccination, in which a population can be protected from a certain virus if a threshold of vaccination is reached,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a virtual press briefing.

For measles, for instance, it is estimated that if 95% of the population is vaccinated, the remaining 5% will also be protected from the spread of the virus. For polio the threshold is estimated at 80%.

“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” Tedros said. “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic.”

Covid-19 has killed well over one million people and infected more than 37.5 million since it first surfaced in China late last year.

Last week, an international group of scientists called on governments to allow young and healthy people to return to normal life while protecting the most vulnerable. It later emerged that several supposedly expert signatories of the “Great Barrington declaration” were fake names, but the document reflected once more highlighted calls for an effort to develop herd immunity.

Relying on naturally obtaining herd immunity would be “scientifically and ethically problematic”, Tedros said. “Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It’s not an option.”

He pointed to the lack of information on the development of immunity to Covid-19, including how strong the immune response is and how long antibodies remain in the body.

Tedros pointed to some cases where people are believed to have been infected with the virus a second time. He also stressed the many long-term health problems of infection, which researchers are only just beginning to understand.

He pointed out that it has been estimated that less than 10% of the population in most countries are believed to have contracted the disease. “The vast majority of people in most countries remain susceptible to this virus,” he said. “Letting the virus circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on the virus, told Monday’s briefing that it was estimated that 0.6% of people who contract Covid-19 die from the disease.

“That may not sound like a lot,” she acknowledged, while stressing that it was “a lot higher than [for] influenza”. She noted that “the infection fatality ratio increases dramatically with age”.

While elderly people and people with underlying health conditions are clearly the most likely to fall seriously ill from Covid-19, Tedros stressed that they were not the only ones at risk. “People of all ages have died,” he said.

The UN agency also voiced optimism at the speed at which vaccines against the virus were being developed, with 40 vaccine candidates in clinical trials, including 10 in late-stage phase 3 trials.

Donald Trump has repeatedly promised that a Covid-19 vaccine will be ready before next month’s US elections. But the WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, said the vaccines in late-stage trials were not expected to produce sufficient data to request regulatory approval until December at the earliest.

“Into the early part of 2021, we expect a number of trials to start providing data for regulators to look at,” she said. After that though, regulators would need to go through the data before making their decisions. “This is going to be a lot of data, and also for the WHO,” she said.