Monday, September 21, 2020

Herd immunity and the end of Covid-19


Following on from my previous posts about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and Covid-19, the human disease that it causes, there are a number of miscellaneous topics that could also be discussed. Unfortunately, this is only a part of the post that I originally intended. I had written about some aspects of the pandemic that seem to be less well known. However, Blogger deleted the draft without warning, and this is the only part that I could recover.

Here, I talk about how the pandemic ends, as far as biology (rather than society) is concerned.
There is a lot of wishful thinking at the moment, that production of a vaccine will see the end of the pandemic, but the World Health Organization has warned that this may not be so. For example, they are apparently trying to develop a 5-year strategy for Europe, not a 5-month one. One of their officials, Hans Henri Kluge, has noted: "The end of the pandemic is the moment when we as a society learn how we can live with the pandemic."


Biologically, safety from pathogens involves what is called herd immunity. This refers to the proportion of the population who are not infectious, and thus are not spreading the pathogen (whether it is a virus, a bacterium, an apicomplexan, or a fungus). Lack of infectiousness can be achieved by:
  1. being resistant to the pathogen in the first place, perhaps due to past immunological events (eg. Coronavirus: How the common cold might protect you from COVID)
  2. becoming infected and then recovering, by producing antibodies or T-cells (eg. This trawler’s haul: Evidence that antibodies block the coronavirus)
  3. being vaccinated, which produces the same immune response as 2., by producing protective antibodies.

Note that 2. is not necessarily dangerous for most people, as reports show that anything up to half of the people who have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 did not report clinical symptoms, or only mild symptoms. [Note also: lack of symptoms does not mean that you are not infectious.] However, the variation in human response has clearly been huge (see From ‘brain fog’ to heart damage, COVID-19’s lingering problems alarm scientists), in many cases resulting in cytokine storms, and death.

The main risk factors are also clear — age and gender (The coronavirus is most deadly if you are older and male — new data reveal the risks), and any pre-existing medical conditions, notably obesity (Individuals with obesity and COVID‐19: a global perspective on the epidemiology and biological relationships). Furthermore, we do not yet know how long any immune protection lasts — for example, we now have people who have been infected more than once (Researchers document first case of virus reinfection), although most have kept their antibodies for at least 4 months (Fyra av fem behåller antikroppar mot nya coronaviruset).

Nor do we yet know about the success or danger of 3., because it normally takes a couple of years of clinical trials before a vaccine is approved for use, and even then we can get it badly wrong (cf. the originally undetected side-effects of thalidomide). As far as health care is concerned, responsibility for treatment of any unfortunate outcomes from immunization is not at all clear. Furthermore, those nations that spend the most on healthcare per person may not be ranked highest for health outcomes and quality of care (see: What country spends the most on healthcare?). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many people are concerned about taking any new vaccine (A Covid-19 vaccine problem: people who are afraid to get one), and that the World Health Organization is being much more cautious than many government leaders (Most people likely won't get a coronavirus vaccine until the middle of 2021).

Nevertheless, once herd immunity is achieved in my local population, I am relatively safe, irrespective of whether I have been vaccinated or not — there will be few infectious people around me, and so I am not very likely to catch the pathogen. Personally, I could wait a while to see how the myriad new vaccines affect people, as they have been rush-produced in a way that would not normally be accepted as safe for public use (what is called the Phase 3 trial takes time). After all, there seems to be an awful lot of politics involved, especially in the USA (The 943-dimensional chess of a trustworthy Covid-19 vaccine).


Some calculations

The point here is that the development of any epidemic is an interaction between infectivity, herd immunity and infection control. Let's consider some explicit numbers to make this clear (based on: Flockimmunitet på lägre nivå kan hejda smittan).

Infectivity refers to how the pathogen spreads among the at-risk population, usually described as the basal reproductive rate (R0). If each infected individual infects 2-3 others, then the R0 value is c. 2.5 (each person infects 2.5 other people, on average). This means that the epidemic must spread — if R = 1 then there is no spread; and if R < 1 then the infection slowly dies out (it stops instantly if R = 0).

Clearly, infectivity can be reduced by any infection control measure that reduces R. Some of these were listed in the previous section. These measures can easily reduce the initial R0 by one half, meaning that the epidemic spreads much more slowly, if R = 1.25.

Herd immunity comes into this by also reducing R. For example, if herd immunity reaches 60%, then only the remaining 40% of the people are susceptible to the infection. If we combine this 40% with the initial R0 = 2.5, then R = 1, and the epidemic no longer increases. That is, we now have it under control. Moreover, if we have managed to get to R = 1.25, then a herd immunity of even 20% will cause the epidemic to decrease.

Bhoj Raj Singh has a good slide presentation elaborating on this topic.

These calculations interact with the concept of relative risk, of course. The calculations so far assume that infection exposure is random in society, which is obviously too simple an idea. Some people are more socially active than others, are thus likely to be more exposed, and they will then quickly achieve significant herd immunity. Others find it difficult to self-isolate because of their work or social conditions, which also increases the development of herd immunity. All of this also helps more isolated people, of course, because they are not at risk of infection from those active groups with herd immunity.

We would thus expect herd immunity to develop first in cities (eg. Experts say Stockholm is close to achieving herd immunity ; A third of people tested in Bronx have coronavirus antibodies) and in poor communities (Herd immunity may be developing in Mumbai’s poorest areas), both of which seem to be the case for SARS-CoV-2.

Equally importantly, herd immunity cannot develop if we all hide from the virus. This has happened in New Zealand, for example, which has so far successfully quarantined itself from the rest of the world — they have not successfully fought the virus, they have instead successfully hidden from it. The issue is that the populace can never come out of hiding, and can thus never let anyone come into the country, not even returning New Zealanders. As an example, Hawaii had the same isolation advantage, and then lost it, just as expected (Hawaii is no longer safe from Covid-19), as also did Australia (Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers).

It is a classic question: which is better, fight or flight? In a pandemic, flight cannot lead to herd immunity, which is what we need in order to "learn how we can live with the pandemic".

So, where are we now? Well, a recent poll in the USA suggests that it is an even split about whether people will actually take a vaccine if offered soon (U.S. public now divided over whether to get Covid-19 vaccine). Will 50% be enough to ensure herd immunity in that country?