Was the concept of herd immunity just a will o’ the wisp conjured up by fearful governments to give people something to hang on to until a vaccine could rescue us, or another example of bad advice given by medical professionals?
When Britain entered its third wave late last year, double vaccination rates there were approaching 80% yet their infection rate far exceeded previous waves. The upside was that hospitalisation and death rates were lower. The anti-vaxxers touted this as proof that, while not producing genetic modification (yet), vaccines didn’t work either and were just a profit-making venture by a vague group of people trying to control the world. The cynical amongst us explained it by saying that all the vulnerable had already been killed off in the first two waves. The few sober Brits who weren’t catching up on their pints at the pub attributed this high infection rate to the relaxed restrictions. Still others stated that the Delta variant was more infectious but less deadly. Whatever the truth, it didn’t bode well for the idea of herd immunity.
What about South Africa? With Christmas approaching, less than 25% of South Africans were fully vaccinated when the Omicron variant hit. This caused a frisson of excitement under the doek of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, our resident Grinch. Her dear little heart was doing flick-flacks at the thought of cancelling Christmas again and closing beaches. Unfortunately for her, some cool heads prevailed and she was left to fumigate herself in a dark corner somewhere. The Omicron variant proved to be far less deadly than previous variants and only caused a minor flirtation with draconian measures. But again, what was the truth. We definitely couldn’t claim that vaccines were responsible for the lower death and hospitalisation rates. The cynical view that the vulnerable had already died has some truth. While SA only boasted around 90,000 dead – lower than the UK – the real figure was more likely around 150,000 as calculated from the excess death rates. The discrepancy is easily explained by the chaotic state of SA’s health system that can barely dispense an Aspirin in some places.
So what is the truth? My qualitative assessment of vaccines is that, if all the vulnerable had already been killed off before, then ICU’s should see a distribution of 25% vaxxed patients and 75% unvaxxed if vaccines didn’t work. The reported experience has been that ICU patients have almost exclusively been unvaxxed and therefore vaccination must confer a large measure of protection against the worst outcomes. But what about herd immunity? Like the zero Covid strategy of New Zealand and China, I don’t think it’s achievable. After all, have we ever achieved herd immunity against fast mutating viruses like the common cold or flu. The answer is a resounding no, so why should we buy into this notion that the politicians, (ill)advised by their medical professionals, assuaged our fears with. I think that Covid-19 is something that we’ll have to learn to live with