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Herd Immunity: the “human wave attack”

There are many ways to deal with a threat.  One of the least sophisticated strategies is to simply attempt to overwhelm your opponent with superior numbers.  In the military, it’s a “human wave attack.” 

It’s counterpart in dealing with pandemics is known as “herd immunity.”  Both strategies needlessly sacrifice large numbers of human beings, and can still manage to fail.

Human wave attacks can be found in World War I battles like The Somme, or by the Communist Chinese in the Korean War, or even the Iranian hordes against Iraq in their 1980s war.  All lead to shocking numbers of deaths, and did not accomplish their goals, which is why most smart militaries abandon such a disastrous strategy.

Supporters of “herd immunity” are preparing to make a similar blunder, this time in the fields of medicine and science.  The idea is that many people get sick, and somehow we’ll magically develop immunity on our own, and the virus will simply fail to infect new people and die out.

“We’re talking about something that…basically would be relying upon an outbreak that would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans,” says William Hanage, an epidemiologist in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Kate Baggaley’s Popular Science article. “The numbers of people who would be rendered vulnerable to this are surely larger than anybody should be prepared to accept.”

All we can expect is a lot of deaths, overcrowded hospitals swamping our care system and beds available, with no guarantee that it will even work.  “There’s also no evidence that a single sweep of the virus through the population would lead to herd immunity, says Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, also in Popular Science.  ‘It’s a complete myth that you can just let the epidemic rage, protect the vulnerable, and achieve herd immunity. What may happen is…you fill the hospitals, you fill the morgues, and then the next year it happens again,” he says. “You’re not going to get enough people infected to achieve herd immunity and therefore you’ll have done it all for nothing.’”  And we haven’t even begun to cover comorbidities.

The United Kingdom tried it, and then wisely abandoned it, during the COVID-19 pandemic.  “Achieving herd immunity would require well over 47 million people to be infected in the UK. Current estimates are that COVID-19 has a 2.3% case-fatality rate and a 19% rate of severe disease (as noted by JAMA). This means that achieving herd immunity to COVID-19 in the UK could result in the deaths of more a million people with a further eight million severe infections requiring critical care.”  This comes from an article by Jeremy Rossman, the Honorary Senior Lecturer in Virology and President of Research Aid Networks at the University of Kent.  By the way, that’s more deaths than the UK lost during WWII in terms of military and civilian deaths.

Supporters claimed it “succeeded” in Sweden, but all it succeeded in doing was give Sweden a higher death rate than its neighbors.  Stung by the criticism, a Swedish diplomat claimed his country wasn’t trying to achieve herd immunity with its policies.

Some are proposing that we try to get as many people as possible to catch the coronavirus, without a working vaccine or cure, and assumes that people who caught it once and can’t catch it again (wrong) and that we won’t have to face a mutated strange and have to restart the death count.  Our death rates would top our Spanish Influenza fatalities, which dropped our national life expectancy by more than a decade.  Let’s return to the practical policies of wearing masks and social distancing, to supplement a true vaccine and cure for COVID-19 when it really comes.