If we can’t become immune through infection why do we think we can become immune through a vaccine? Does the Government not understand how vaccination programmes work? That’s the question it isn’t answering. There was, however, a candid admission from Boris Johnson on Monday that a vaccine may never come, a point reiterated by Chris Whitty later in the day. Responding to a question from Steve Baker, Johnson said: “SARS took place 18 years ago, we still don’t have a vaccine for SARS. I don’t wish to depress him, but we must be realistic about this. There is a good chance of a vaccine, but it cannot be taken for granted.”
So, er, shouldn’t we learn how to live with the virus then, just as we have with seasonal flu?
Reinforcing this message, Kate Bingham, head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, told Sky News last night that the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to end the pandemic, and that uncertainties remain over how much protection they give and for how long. Sky then went to Professor Jonathan Ball, a vaccine expert at Nottingham University, who claimed “at the moment we have no protection against COVID-19 at all” and says antibody levels fall quickly after infection so if the same happens with a vaccine it may only protect for a month or two. Has he not been following the science on T-cell immunity?
Try telling that to the Swedes, Professor.
Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus was also dismissive of herd immunity on Monday, labelling it “scientifically and ethically problematic”. The BBC has more.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday, Dr Tedros argued that the long-term impacts of coronavirus – as well as the strength and duration any immune response – remained unknown.
“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” he 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.”
The WHO head added that seroprevalence tests – where the blood is tested for antibodies – suggested that just 10% of people had been exposed to coronavirus in most countries.
“Letting COVID-19 circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death,” he said.
Tedros’s comments came in the same week that the WHO’s Head of Emergencies, Mike Ryan, said they want to try to avoid “massive lockdowns that are so punishing to communities, to society and to everything else”. WHO COVID-19 special envoy David Nabarro also said on Thursday that: “We in the World Health Organisation do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.”
So they don’t want lockdowns, which are disastrous for humanity and especially the poor, but neither do they support herd immunity, which is supposedly too far off, despite all the research showing lower thresholds due to T-cell cross immunity, and the evidence from countries such as Sweden, Belarus and Tanzania and the US state of South Dakota. There is also the curious case of the East Asian countries, which, as Ross Clark points out, have had far lower death rates regardless of the measures they took.
And if we’ve never in the history of public health used herd immunity as a strategy for responding to a viral outbreak, how does Tedros believe we managed to cope with the global flu pandemics of 1957-58 and 1968-69? Don’t recall a lockdown or a vaccine being part of the solution then.
Where does this leave the Government’s strategy, particularly as realism about a vaccine sets in? Nowhere at all, as far as I can see. If the new restrictions are not about waiting for a vaccine, which the Government now seems to accept is a distant prospect, what are they for? Boris has surrendered the dubious high ground of “the Science” with its remorseless call to lock everything down to Keir Starmer, leaving the Labour leader with the unanswered question of what to do when the
‘economy breaker’ ‘circuit breaker’ is over. Do another one? Then another? But by eschewing the heretical science of herd immunity and focused protection Johnson has left himself with no science at all – just a dog’s breakfast of purposeless restrictions with no hope to offer.
Until the Government accepts that more harm than good is being done by ongoing restrictions, and that we should follow Sweden’s proven strategy, we are doomed to be stuck in an endless, stop-go loop of economic destruction, where every rise in “cases” results in new shackles and every drop off is just taken as proof that the latest are working.
Stop Press: An eagle-eyed reader spotted the following nugget in the SAGE minutes released on Monday:
Overall, the evidence base on which to judge the effectiveness and harms associated with different interventions is weak and so there is considerable uncertainty around the estimates presented here.
Even SAGE admits they’re making it up as they go along.