Herd immunity?

Updated 10 May 2020

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BASED on the remarks of two key officials at the helm of pandemic control in the country, it appears that the federal government is pursuing an unannounced policy of ‘herd immunity’.

The first indication of this came from SAPM Dr Zafar Mirza, who in an interview with DawnNews earlier this week conceded that “it will be better for the future if coronavirus spreads at a certain level so people can become immune”.

Also read: Sweden opted for ‘herd immunity’ against a total lockdown. Is it paying the price?

The second, albeit less categorical, message came from federal minister and NCOC chair Asad Umar during a talk show. Although he said it is not a policy decision, he justified it by saying that the logical conclusion of the pandemic is either a vaccine or a situation where 70pc of the population contracts the virus and achieves herd immunity. That these remarks have come as the government prepares to ease lockdown restrictions — despite the spike in death and infection curves — is extremely troubling.

In theoretical terms, herd immunity is a concept based on the body’s immune resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population. It is achieved when a significantly high proportion of individuals are vaccinated against it and therefore develop immunity. When enough people are vaccinated, a virus is unable to spread through the population.

However, the reality is that there is no vaccine for the coronavirus as yet. In the absence of a vaccine, immunity to the virus can likely only be achieved if an individual contracts it and survives, developing antibodies in his or her system.

If, by Mr Umar’s calculation, three-fourths of the population contracts Covid-19, the results in Pakistan would be catastrophic. At present, 2.2pc of those testing positive in the country die. Even if that grim percentage is halved, if 140m people contract Covid-19, we would be looking at at least 1.4m deaths. It would require the immuno-compromised to be sacrificed for the sake of the economy — a notion which is unacceptable and inhumane.

Despite what Mr Umar appears to be suggesting, the herd immunity approach is being pursued by very few countries. The UK’s initial decision was to take this approach, but the lack of restrictions and the rapid spike in cases and deaths forced a rethink. Currently, it is only being pursued by Sweden, which is drawing flak from scientists across the world.

The government needs to say clearly that it is not pursuing the policy of herd immunity as it eases the lockdown.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2020