Herd Immunity and Coronavirus: Will a Vaccine Even Be Necessary?

Are vaccines and herd immunity the answer to coronavirus? We all want to know when the Covid-19 pandemic will end. A return to normality after Covid-19 is on top of everyone’s lists. Many scientists say that herd immunity and vaccines are the way to get back to pre-coronavirus days. You remember those days, right? Going to work, browsing in stores without face masks, having a meal with friends, and not having to worry about forgetting to use hand sanitizer. 

Vaccines have been the answer to halt the spread of many viral diseases. Vaccines create what scientists call herd immunity, and it’s an effective way of keeping us healthy. So, conditions such as polio, mumps, measles, smallpox are almost a thing of the past. The World Health Forum calls vaccines “the single most life-saving innovation in the history of medicine.”

But what about the coronavirus and herd community? Are vaccines the answer to eradicating this nasty disease? This article answers questions on herd immunity and the coronavirus.

What is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity happens when the majority of the population becomes immune to a disease. Herd immunity protects the immune person. But it also protects them from infecting others. The result is that disease spreading in the community is unlikely. Bottom line, herd immunity protects the entire community from out-of-control, person-to-person spread. 

For herd immunity to be effective in preventing the spread of diseases like Covid-19, doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that the threshold proportion is crucial. This number is the ratio of immune persons to those with no immunity. Herd immunity happens when the number of people immune is greater than the threshold. When this happens, the spread of the disease declines. 

Herd Immunity and Coronavirus — The End to the Pandemic?

Some doctors say that a Covid-19 vaccine is the best way to achieve herd immunity and stop the disease from spreading. But a vaccine is still a long way off. This could mean that the pandemic is unlikely to end any time soon

What’s the threshold proportion for herd immunity and coronavirus? According to Johns Hopkins, at least 70% of the population needs to be immune from Covid-19 for herd immunity to kick in. What does this mean in real terms? It means that over 200 million Americans would need to get sick with Covid-19 and develop immunity — or, be vaccinated. 

The CDC reports that there are just over 3 million infected with Covid-19 in the U.S. With around 60,000 new cases daily, it’s going to be a while before we reach herd immunity.

Herd immunity and Covid-19 vaccines

Ideally, a vaccine for Covid-19 would get us out of this coronavirus nightmare. Vaccines create community immunity without harm or causing illness. It would also be possible to vaccinate people with weak immune systems or infants. Like with many other deadly diseases, vaccines could help control coronavirus.

But there are a few issues with vaccinations. For example, they can lose their protection over time. Also, some people are skeptical or refuse vaccines. An effective, safe vaccine against Covid-19 might take years to develop. And that doesn’t even begin to address the logistics of distributing the vaccine through the population. 

Herd immunity and natural infection rate

What about reaching herd immunity by letting the majority of people get infected naturally? The idea is that, when a person recovers from a disease, they have antibodies. These cells protect against future infections. Would natural infection create herd immunity for coronavirus?

Doctors point to several issues with natural herd immunity. For example, it’s not clear if people who’ve survived Covid-19 have enough antibodies to provide long-term protection. As the Johns Hopkins report found, more than 200 million Americans would need to get sick. Some estimates say that could result in 500,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. before herd immunity happens. 

Stopping Coronavirus — Is Herd Immunity the Answer?

At present, the current advice on avoiding getting sick with Covid-19 and preventing its spread is the following:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • Disinfect surfaces regularly

As scientists continue studying the data on Covid-19, they’re learning more about how it spreads and its infection rate. Also, some coronavirus facts and figures can give insight into how the pandemic could possibly end. 

The Spread of Coronavirus in the Community

The strict lockdown orders that crippled the economy was to prevent Covid-19 from spreading in the community. Also, many doctors and epidemiologists recommend wearing face masks to prevent the virus from spreading in public places. The reason? It’s possible that people can have the virus for up to two weeks without showing any symptoms. But they could be contagious during this time. 

Recent comments from the World Health Organization (WHO) confused many people about the spread of the virus. In its June press conference, a WHO representative suggested that asymptomatic folks “rarely spread the disease.” 

However, researchers from Harvard were quick to point on that you can pass on the virus without showing symptoms. In fact, the most infectious days may be the few days before you show signs.

There’s also new evidence of how the virus spreads. Scientists have discovered that the virus hangs around in the air much longer than previously thought. Until now, most scientists knew that Covid-19 spreads through droplets when you sneeze or cough — hence the advice to cover your nose and mouth. Because of the new evidence, the WHO updated their guidance on the spread of coronavirus.

We’ll have to wait and see how emerging evidence affects social distancing guidelines and wearing face masks. 

Related reading: Do face masks really protect against Covid-19?

How deadly is Covid-19?

The biggest concern with coronavirus is how deadly it is. To work this out, the CDC released figures on the infection fatality rate (IFR). This calculates the percentage of deaths among infected persons. The IFR number includes confirmed cases and folks who didn’t show signs of the disease.

The latest CDC figures in May put the average IFR at 0.26%. However, in some scenarios, the number could be as high as 0.4%. But the current average figure is less than the previous estimate of 0.33% in April. 

According to the CDC report, younger people have a higher chance of surviving Covid-19 than older people. The estimates of fatality rates are as follows:

  • 0 – 49 years old — 0.05%
  • 50 – 64 years old — 0.2%
  • Over 65 years old — 1.3%

For context, the IFR of the seasonal flu across all age groups is .1%. Of course, data is changing all the time. It’s also tricky to work out how deadly a disease is at the beginning of a pandemic. 

How and When the Coronavirus Pandemic Will End

Some scientists think that Covid-19 will end on its own. In the worst-case scenario, we’ll learn to live with Covid-19, just like we’ve learned to live with the yearly flu. 

According to comments by Professor Sunetra Gupta from Oxford University, we may not need anything special to combat the coronavirus. The professor said that the disease is only a high-risk factor for the elderly and people with underlying health problems. Vaccines — when and if they become available — should be to protect vulnerable groups, not the general population. 

Herd Immunity and the Coronavirus: A Takeaway

It’s clear that the pandemic won’t end any time soon. Maybe the coronavirus pandemic will stop on its own due to herd immunity. Until then, we need to practice good hygiene and observe social distancing to avoid catching and spreading Covid-19.