UAB Infectious Disease Doctor: Herd immunity through natural infection would be “reckless”

Herd immunity could result in more deaths

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – One of Alabama’s most powerful lawmakers said he made “a poor choice of words” when he said “he wanted to see more people” infected with COVID-19 to start “reaching an immunity.”

Senator Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Friday, “It was a poor choice of words on my end, but the ultimate – what I was trying to say, and people can look at it, there are very few choices we have. Ultimately, if there is no vaccine, herd immunity is the only one I can think of that’s eventually going to take place.”

Herd immunity can be achieved through a vaccine or natural infection. According to Johns Hopkins University, it will likely take 70% of the population to be immune to COVID-19 to have herd protection.

In Alabama, that would mean at least 3.4 million people will need to get infected and according to Dr. Michael Saag, would result in “tens of thousands of deaths.”

“We’ve got a long way to go before we can actually hit herd immunity with coronavirus and the problem is, if the virus was relatively benign that wouldn’t be a problem, but we are seeing deaths and we are seeing hospitals being overrun and right now, we’re almost at capacity in a lot of hospitals, and if we keep pushing the infection rates up, then the systems, hospital systems will get overwhelmed and people with other diseases, even if they don’t have coronavirus, can’t get into the hospital because there won’t be any room,” explained Dr. Saag, Director, Center for AIDS Research and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, UAB.

Dr. Saag said trying to achieve herd immunity through natural infection would be “reckless,” referencing attempts in Sweden.

“What happened in Sweden is very much what is happening to us right now. Initially, the majority of the deaths were among older people and they said, ‘Well, they were likely going to die soon anyway, so we will get the herd immunity this way.’ The flip side is more and more young people are getting infected, both here and there, and people die in their 20s and 30s with this infection,” explained Dr. Saag.

“Every day that’s happening, so why are we playing Russian roulette with a virus when there are a lot of other ways we can control it, and be smart about it? We have the knowledge. We just have to apply the knowledge to our policy and make it happen.”

Dr. Saag is researching COVID-19 and survived the virus, and said “this is not something anyone wants.”

He’s concerned there is not enough evidence to determine how effective COVID-19 antibodies are and how long they last.

“If true infection, like what I had, leads to significant enough immunity so I’m protected if I’m exposed again, right now, we don’t know that. I don’t know if I am protected and if I am, for how long. The same thing is true of a vaccine. Assuming we get a vaccine that works in terms of producing some degree of protective immunity, then that immunity has to last for a long enough period of time for the infection to exhaust itself in the population,” explained Dr. Saag.

He believes “we will be living” with the virus for at least another year but said it can be controlled.

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