Herd immunity like Russian roulette

Editorial | Mary Ma 16 Mar 2020

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is undoubtedly the most dangerous day-dreamer of the day - just as his European counterparts have started to wake up and fight the threat of the new coronavirus.

Even his German peer, Angela Merkel - though resigned to the grim prospect of 70 percent of Germans eventually becoming infected - is stepping up like US President Donald Trump to do something to contain the disease.

After Trump exercised his political muscle to coerce private retail chains to set up drive-through virus testing sites across America, Merkel has given the green light to school closures and clamped down on large public gatherings.

But Johnson is still betting on the novel idea of so-called "herd immunity," which is truly alarming.

Herd immunity is not a new scientific concept. Assuming that people will be immune to a disease after recovering from it, the idea predicts that the chain of infection will be disrupted after 60 to 70 percent of the population become immune to the disease. Then the most vulnerable groups, including the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, will not be infected.

Herd immunity is usually achieved through vaccination.

However, it's a dangerously novel idea in the current case of coronavirus because Johnson is expecting the public to develop immunity naturally rather than through vaccination - because there isn't a vaccine yet.

Would it be too dangerous to accept the mathematical model readily when scientists still don't understand their enemy completely?

Johnson's de-facto hands-off approach is a cause for grave concern and a poll by The Observer newspaper showed only 36 percent of the British public trusted Johnson on the subject. It would have boded really ill for him in a general election.

If the steep rebound of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index during Trump's announcement to increase virus testing was an expression of relief that the president was, at last, acting in the right direction, the weakening of the British pound over the weekend showed Johnson still has a long way to go to catch up in the virus battle.

It could not be more ironic that the Premier League, Football League, Scottish Football Association and the Wales-Scotland Six Nations Ruby match have either cancelled or postponed matches even though the government said it was okay to go ahead with such major events.

When a government is expected to stay ahead of the curve, it is ironic that Downing Street has been lagging behind even the private sector, which relies on the government for what-do-do guidance.

Johnson's policy of inaction is based on a hypothesis that has not been robustly peer-reviewed or tested.

If he was really so confident of his strategy, should he have gone even one step further to amass healthy volunteers to shorten the immunity culturing time by grouping them together to cross-infect each other so as to develop immunity?

That would be a crazy thought - as dangerous, in fact, as the untested herd immunity theory.

Trump may have attempted the same but was discouraged by the nightmarish situation in Italy. He probably now knows that, once the volcano is allowed to erupt, it overwhelms and forces the health-care system to break down.

Johnson is playing Russian roulette with the public.

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