Eradicate or co-habitate: that’s the dilemma. Follow the Italian and Chinese model or rely on the principle of herd immunity?
There has been a great debate in recent days about the UK’s decision on how to manage the COVID-19 epidemic. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has announced the strategy that the UK intends to adopt. It’s precisely that of herd immunity. Let’s examine it in detail.
The four measures on which the principle of herd immunity is based…
It’s based on a study from the 1930s, which claims that if a certain number of the population “self-immune” by coming into contact with the virus and developing antibodies, then it will slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Remember that a vaccine does not exist (yet), so you have to get the virus and most likely get sick more or less seriously.
The principle of herd immunity is mainly based on four measures:
- Contain – they will try to keep the coronavirus out of British territory
- Delay – they will try to slow down its geographical presence
- Research – they will study how the virus moves and how it can be stopped
- Mitigate – they will slow its spread over time.
Right now, the UK is somewhere between “contain” and “delay”.
Potential UK numbers with this strategy
In order to have effective herd immunity, the British Government’s consultant, Sir Patrick Vallance, claims that at least 60% of the population will have to contract the coronavirus.
The population of Great Britain is 67 million people, and the mortality rate estimated by the World Health Organization ranges from 1 to 3.4%, depending on how the number of infected cases is estimated. It follows that at best (1% mortality) about 400,000 people could die from the coronavirus!
However, before they die, the infected people will go to hospital, and since they’re very seriously ill, they’ll need intensive care. In the United Kingdom, there are about 4500 beds in intensive care (in Italy, over 7000). These beds are not all available for people suffering from serious coronavirus, but they must also be used for heart attacks, for those who have suffered a serious accident, etc…
The conclusion would soon be the collapse of the health care system (NHS) which could only be saved by the timely provision of thousands of intensive care beds.
An ethically questionable approach (which also contradicts the rest of the world’s)
The British Government’s strategy is fundamentally based on the fact that they don’t believe that the COVID-19 outbreak will abate, with the adoption of containment measures and the arrival of Summer. The World Health Organization also agrees on this last point.
However, to let potentially hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives when there are, albeit at their own cost, alternative measures seems rather cynical. It’s clear that every measure has its associated cost.
The approach of Italy and other countries (such as Spain) are progressively adopting is the introduction of social measures that will have a strong impact on the economy, but a lower impact on health and especially on people’s health.
The measure that Boris Johnson intends to adopt, goes exactly in the opposite direction, saving the economy at the price of hundreds of thousands of human lives that will necessarily be part of the weakest segment of the population. This is not an ethically acceptable approach.
As a last consideration, the coronavirus could disappear during the Summer and also return to strike next Winter, in 8-to-10 months’ time. However, we must also think that there will be effective drugs that are currently being studied and we’ll be very close to a vaccine.
In conclusion, to force a nation to accept the “many more families are going to lose loved ones” credo (Boris Johnson’s words), when there are alternative temporary solutions and longer-term solutions within a few months seems ethically unacceptable.
Public opinion in the UK is divided: will the “God of Money” or the Health of Citizens win?
This post is also available in: Italiano