‘It’s the only strategy’: Coronavirus pandemic cannot end without herd immunity

| | April 20, 2020
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Credit: Reuters
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For weeks, the most pressing policy challenge has been relieving the life-and-death pressure on our hospitals. But all that justifiable emphasis on flattening the curve may have created a dangerous illusion that we can get away with relatively small infection rates.

It’s easy to forget that if a disease can’t be contained — and it’s too late for that in the COVID-19 pandemic — then there’s only one possible ending to the story: We must collectively develop immunity to the disease. In lieu of a vaccine, that means most of us will need to be exposed to the virus, and some unknowably large number of us will die in the process.

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This is the simple, scary math that Harvard epidemiologists Marc Lipsitch and his colleague Yonatan Grad have tried to convey in a series of recently published papers: If each person infected with COVID-19 disease in turn infects three more, as we now think, then in order to bring the disease to heel, Grad says, two of those people must already be immune.

[H]erd immunity isn’t merely a possible strategy. In the long run it’s the only strategy. The question, then, is how to get there responsibly.

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