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Just to be clear, no-one has beaten Covid-19!

Posted on 18th July 2020

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Show all posts in this thread (Covid-19).

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the success, or failure, of various nations in dealing with Covid-19. At one extreme there is New Zealand, which has been hailed as a roaring success, because they had so few cases, and almost no recent cases (and all of those due to visitors from outside of the country). At the opposite end of the spectrum there are countries like the USA and Brazil, where the coronavirus is raging out of control. In between, there are countries such as Spain, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Sweden and many more, where the virus is surging again, after seeming to be under control, as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased. Even in Germany, where I live, the number of cases of Covid-19 have increased with the reduction of restrictions on travel and public gatherings.

This New York Times report provides an excellent summary of the global spread of the outbreak and the resulting deaths, and this search yields a graphical summary where you can select (in a pull-down menu) the country for which you want data.

So, let us look more closely at the extremes.

  1. New Zealand brought in very strict quarantine and lockdown regulations very quickly. This means that the disease is pretty much eliminated from the country, few people were infected and hardly anyone died (22 people at the time of writing). That in turn means that virtually no-one has any immunity. As soon as they open their borders, the disease will get in again, as it has done at least once in recent weeks. New Zealand may have eliminated Covid-19 from their shores, but all the while that the pandemic rages around the rest of the world, the only way they can keep it at bay is to maintain a national quarantine. For a country which is so heavily dependent upon tourism, and with a fairly high rate of immigration, that is an economic death sentence.
  2. The USA has had an incredibly high number of infections and deaths, compared to China and Europe, for example. They seem to have had no success in “flattening the curve”, and in parts of the country the infection rate is rising dramatically. Even so, the total official number of people who have caught Covid-19 is only around 3 million, which is less than 1% of the population. Research suggests that the actual number of infections could be between 5 to 10 times that (due to undetected infections because of inadequate testing), but even that means that less than 10% have had the coronavirus. Given all the recent doubts about how long immunity to the disease may last after an infection, the number of people having immunity is unarguably lower (probably significantly lower) than 10% of their population, which is nowhere near enough to provide “herd immunity”. This article on The Point describes an interesting analysis of the numbers for Mississippi, showing how unrealistic it is to reach herd immunity in that state, even in a year; the numbers for different states and even countries are obviously different, but crunching those numbers will yield basically the same conclusions, that herd immunity is 1 to 3 years away, if it is ever achievable.

The countries between the extremes have had varying degrees of success in limiting the spread of Covid-19 and the resulting deaths, due to the varying strengths of their lockdown regulations, the amount of testing, and the quality, availability and cost of their health-care systems. Also in the mix are cultural differences, such as people’s willingness to wear masks and socially distance, the general level of public and personal hygiene (and even the availability of soap and water in some places), the varying habits regarding social gatherings and the prevalence of the sharing of food and drink. Many places have been rolling back recent easings of lockdown restrictions as infections surge again (see here, on The Guardian).

The key here is that these differences, country to country, are only about the spread of infections. Limiting the spread of Covid-19 inherently limits the spread of immunity, however short-term and limited in scope that immunity may be, so success in controlling the spread has nothing to do with defeating the disease, and actually has the opposite effect.

In summary, herd immunity will not be achieved in any part of the world within the next year, for simple logistical reasons (as pointed out above, in the article about Mississippi). This is further complicated by the fact that immunity from infection may only last a few months (see this report on The Guardian), meaning that it will never become widespread enough to provide herd immunity. This is unfortunate, since herd immunity was the basis of the exit strategies of governments around the world (see here). We urgently need a new exit strategy. The best hope for immunity is a vaccine, which may be available by the end of 2020, but current expectations are that a vaccine will give only short-term protection, possibly meaning immunisations being regularly repeated (maybe every 3 to 6 months).