In the absence of a vaccine, the increasingly discussed idea of beating the novel coronavirus pandemic through achieving so-called herd immunity could be a disastrous miscalculation, a senior WHO official has warned.

“This is a really dangerous, dangerous calculation,” Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, said at a briefing on Monday.

This idea that maybe countries that had lax measures and haven’t done anything will all of a sudden magically reach some herd immunity – and so what if we lose a few old people along the way?

“Humans are not herds,” Ryan said, warning that applying the same standards to humans “can lead to a very brutal arithmetic which does not put people and life and suffering at the center of that equation.”

The term originated from veterinary medicine and initially referred to a concept focusing on the overall health of the population, with little regard to individual animals. The idea is based on a premise that when a large part of the population is immune to an infectious disease, it is less likely to spread to the individuals who aren’t. However, without a vaccine, that means that most people have to beat the illness to develop such immunity – and the price could be too high.

Herd immunity is only applicable to humans when scientists need to calculate how many individuals should be vaccinated for a society to reach proper herd immunity, Ryan said. The assumption that a large portion of the global population has already been infected and had gone through a mild form of Covid-19 have been proven wrong by preliminary epidemiological studies, he added.

“The proportion of severe clinical illnesses is actually a higher proportion of all those that have been infected,” Ryan said, warning that the novel coronavirus turned out to be much more “serious” than initially thought.

The WHO official did not call out any state in particular, but his statements were seen as a dig at Sweden and other nations that had been reluctant to impose strict lockdown measures, because local health experts argued that herd immunity could be achieved instead.

The idea of herd immunity remains popular in some US media outlets, with no shortage of articles discussing the concept, and some even calling on state governments to drop all restrictions and push populations to develop natural immunity to the disease in lieu of a vaccine.

TRUMP: “So many people have died. That’s the one thing we can’t do anything about, unfortunately. What I can say is if we did it the different way — if we went ‘herd,’ if we just said ‘let’s wing it’ — we would’ve been talking about numbers that would’ve been unsustainable.”

Washington remains reluctant to take up the idea, however, with President Donald Trump recently saying the country would have faced “unsustainable and unacceptable” losses had it pursued herd immunity over a lockdown. The US is currently the world’s worst Covid-19 hotspot, with over 1.3 million cases and more than 80,000 fatalities.

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