So Much For ‘Herd Immunity’

So Much For ‘Herd Immunity’

COVID-19 isn’t going away.

Increasingly, that’s the consensus among experts, many of whom believe that between the proliferation of variants and a reluctance on the part of many Americans to be vaccinated, herd immunity simply isn’t a realistic goal in the US.

This rather stark conclusion was detailed Monday in an expansive article by Apoorva Mandavilli, writing for The New York Times.

“There is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever,” Mandavilli said. “Instead, they are coming to the conclusion that rather than making a long-promised exit, the virus will most likely become a manageable threat that will continue to circulate in the United States for years to come, still causing hospitalizations and deaths but in much smaller numbers.”

The piece is unnerving, but not so much because it suggests that COVID itself will be with us for the long-term. To be sure, that’s disconcerting too. But therapeutics will doubtlessly improve, as will scientists’ understanding of the disease. Absent some kind of nightmare mutation, this virus won’t represent a true existential threat to our species. What’s more frightening is the unavoidable temptation to extrapolate from the language Mandavilli uses to explain why herd immunity may never be achieved for COVID, to a situation where the threat is more acute. Hold that thought.

“It is already clear… that the virus is changing too quickly, new variants are spreading too easily and vaccination is proceeding too slowly for herd immunity to be within reach anytime soon,” she said, adding that the threshold for herd immunity rose as new, more contagious variants appeared. Now, experts believe the threshold is “at least 80%.” In the event variants become even more contagious, that figure could keep rising.

In addition, “skepticism about the vaccines among many Americans and lack of access in some groups make it a challenge to” stay above the immunity threshold even if it’s reached, the Times remarked, adding that experts believe “vaccine mandates would only make that stance worse.”

In America, hurdles to herd immunity are numerous. One well-documented issue is the tendency among (too) many Americans to subjugate almost all other considerations to an absurdly quixotic battle to preserve “liberties” and “freedoms” they imagine are somehow being eroded or infringed by simple mandates that require masks in grocery stores during an epidemic or by calls for universal vaccinations.

That represents the complete abandonment of common sense in the name of “freedom” and it makes no more sense than removing the seatbelts from your vehicle because laws that require them are an infringement upon your family’s sacred right to be ejected through the windshield in an accident.

Make no mistake, the Founders wouldn’t be proud of someone who cut out the seatbelts in their car or refused to wear a small face covering during an epidemic. Rather, the Founders would likely be so dismayed at the sheer, blatant stupidity on display, that they may well have just scrapped the whole thing and returned to England, explaining that, having seen the future, they’re no longer confident in the wisdom of the grand project.

This problem is pervasive in the world of finance. CNBC’s Rick Santelli is a prime example. He’s a television version of the libertarian bloggers pushing ideological poison to the masses — only without the actual ideology.

Indeed, there are a lot of ostensible libertarian crusaders in America these days. You can just as easily find them blogging about economics, running hedge funds, and pretending to be portfolio managers on Twitter as you can spot them driving oversized pickup trucks with silly bumper stickers, filling up their shopping carts with Mountain Dew at Walmart or wandering around the US Capitol with a Confederate flag.

But they aren’t libertarians. Virtually none of those folks have any academic background in political philosophy and couldn’t name a single thinker from the libertarian tradition they claim to represent. What they espouse, wittingly or not, isn’t libertarianism. It’s poison.

I’ve been over that a hundred times if I’ve been over it once.

Read more:

Vaccine Push Faces Test In America, Where ‘Freedom’ Is ‘The Gateway Drug To Pseudoscience’

CNBC’s Dangerous Cosplay

But in addition to large swaths of the electorate persisting in the delusion that the Founders would support activities that deserve to be documented in some future edition of The Darwin Awards, there are other obstacles to herd immunity in the US. The Times‘s Mandavilli documents several.

“Herd immunity is often described as a national target, but that is a hazy concept in a country this large,” she wrote, on the way to describing how, even if vaccine coverage is robust for the country as a whole, incomplete coverage in small towns poses considerable risk. “Given the degree of movement among regions, a small virus wave in a region with a low vaccination level can easily spill over into an area where a majority of the population is protected,” she said, quoting multiple experts in the process.

And that’s to say nothing of the distinct possibility that more dangerous variants from abroad make their way to the US and spread, especially in locales where, for whatever reason, immunity is low.

Ultimately, Mandavilli paints a rather depressing picture. “Over the long term — a generation or two — the goal is to transition the new coronavirus to become more like its cousins that cause common colds,” she remarked, noting that “some unknown proportion of people with mild cases may go on to experience debilitating symptoms for weeks or months — a syndrome called ‘long COVID’ — but they are unlikely to overwhelm the health care system.”

Again, all of this is disconcerting enough on its own, but the most unnerving question the Times piece raises isn’t even mentioned explicitly: What are the implications of this for humanity in the event the next pandemic is a hemorrhagic fever? Or some kind of rabies-like madness?

Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo said Monday that all-day subway service will resume in New York City starting later this month. “This is a major reopening of economic and social activity,” Cuomo told a press briefing. New York will also lift capacity limits on restaurants, theaters, and stores on May 19.


21 thoughts on “So Much For ‘Herd Immunity’

  1. Humanity was fortunate …..this time…..600K is a lot, imagine a virus with a 30-50% kill ratio….they exist…..likely will evolve…..what is catastrophic…..our response, and as you so well point out, our pseudo-patriots idiocy.

  2. That “poison” you describe seems like the true pandemic, and one that’s been with us since origination. A mind virus that no society in any period has ever found an inoculation for.

    1. You are right. Humanity has all the tools and resources needed to survive on this spaceship minus the one you mention. Hopefully there’s a new version of Homo after Sapiens that’s already in the pilot phase.

  3. Today Florida Governor and GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis signed a new bill that he had championed into law.

    “the new law would also ban businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination in order to get service. The ban was already in place under an executive order he signed in late March. That order also barred government entities from issuing so-called “vaccine passports.”

    One less reason for doubters to get vaccinated.

    1. I’ve seen some of these bans on vaccination passports

      What I can’t stand more than anything is that they are being championed by Republicans who otherwise identify freedom of association as a core platform

    2. I really wonder what will happen to the Cruise industry as a result of this. They are largely requiring all passengers and crew to be vaccinated, might they change home ports to avoid Florida man?

      1. That’d be an excellent response, tbh. After all, the supposed superiority of having 50 different states each doing their thing is that you have “laboratories of democracy”, right?

        So Florida preemptively banned the providing of vaccination proof? Fine! Just get every other sensible state and sensible company to refuse to deal with Floridians outside of Florida… and let see what happens.

  4. Yes Covid was basically proof that the global human civilization is essentially non-viable in its present state. A true existential threat to humanity would wipe us out and we would barely manage to raise any defense. I’m still not entirely convinced that the global economy can really weather a prolonged infection with several new variants annually. Even if it is just a super flu… it lasts all summer and all winter… without herd immunity a sizeable chunk of the economy is permanently dead. If we ever just open up… hospitals will be overwhelmed. If we collapse the healthcare system death rates will skyrocket from all causes. Congress had better get writing the next stimulus now because in a few months we’ll see not enough is materially better for the average person even is the GDP is at all time highs. Service and Travel jobs are not coming back to pre-pandemic levels.

  5. About 12,000 yrs ago, earth hosted thousands of different homo sapien worlds. By 2000BC, the number of distinct human worlds had dwindled to the hundreds. By 1450, 90% of humans lived in a relatively small number of worlds- each connected by cultural, political and economic ties. (Paraphrasing from Sapiens)
    It seems that continuing “war” against deadly viruses, might be the next important issue to cooperate over (replacing religion?).
    It seems necessary and inevitable that we become one global group.

  6. “Make no mistake, the Founders wouldn’t be proud of someone who cut out the seatbelts in their car or refused to wear a small face covering during an epidemic. Rather, the Founders would likely be so dismayed at the sheer, blatant stupidity on display, that they may well have just scrapped the whole thing and returned to England, explaining that, having seen the future, they’re no longer confident in the wisdom of the grand project.”

    You’ll have to excuse me if I steal this quote and share it with everyone I know because it’s about the funniest damn thing I’ve read in quite some time!

  7. I don’t agree with the pessimism about herd immunity, but agree that it may not be achievable in the very near term or solely through vaccination.

    If, say, 70% ultimately get vaccinated (by end of summer, perhaps) and keep up with annual boosters that are revised as needed to address variants, that leaves 30% unvaccinated. Some of that 30% have already been infected and the rest will eventually get infected. The great majority of those infected will acquire natural immunity which, while inferior to vaccine-mediated immunity, will still be reasonably protective. Some of them will decide to join the vaccinated.

    If you assume a steady flow of variants that evade acquired immunity (like the P.1 variant) then the vax-refusers will enjoy repeated reinfections. Even more of them will eventually join the vaccinated.

    If you assume variants that are dramatically more lethal, then the vax-refusers’ numbers will decline faster, whether through a urgent change of attitude or mortality.

    This points to a future that looks something like this:

    2H2021. 80% (ish) of Americans have some degree of immunity: 70% via vaccination and 10% via acquired immunity. Covid continues to infect the remaining 20%. Cities and states cease most non-pharmaceutical interventions (shutdowns, mask mandates, etc). Case counts and hospitalization/mortality are significant relative to that 20%, but low relative to the population as a whole.

    90% (ish) of Americans have a degree of immunity: 80% via vaccination and 10% via acquired immunity. Covid continues to infect the remaining 10%, with regional and community variations very pronounced: in areas where >>90% are immune, case rates among the <<10% are low as they benefit from local herd immunity, while in other areas, case rates are high relative to that 10%, but very low relative the the population as a whole. For most Americans, the pandemic is basically largely over.

    This assumes the biopharma industry continues to aggressively develop and adjust vaccines for new variants, and vaccine supply becomes and remains ample. Both pretty fair assumptions, in the US and most developed economies. Developing countries will be a year or so behind.

    It won’t be good to be a vax-refuser in the next year or two, but the vaccinated will be leading normal lives. The global market for Covid vaccines will remain giant through 2022-2023 and fairly large thereafter (boosters, variant versions). Vaccines with material (or even non-material) safety issues will be abandoned, since the risk-benefit will change greatly in the coming year. Therapeutics will be a durable market. This seems like a good environment for vaccine and therapeutic drugs.

  8. Israel is an example of a country that has rapidly achieved herd immunity through vaccination alone. 81% vaccinated and Covid cases down -98.5%, all Covid restrictions gone and life back to normal.

    Shame that the US can’t emulate Israel. We’ll get there but it’ll take longer.

    1. Israel will never achieve herd immunity as they have failed to vaccinate their Palestinian population. Their Covid cases may be down 98% now, but they have lured themselves into a false sense of security, just as much of the US has as well. By not vaccinating the third world, we have insured that this will be an ongoing problem (read profit center for Big Pharma) far into the future.


      “ By April 3, 2021, 4?714?932 (72·1%) of 6?538?911 people aged 16 years and older were fully vaccinated with two doses of BNT162b2. Adjusted estimates of vaccine effectiveness at 7 days or longer after the second dose were 95·3% (95% CI 94·9–95·7; incidence rate 91·5 per 100?000 person-days in unvaccinated vs 3·1 per 100?000 person-days in fully vaccinated individuals) against SARS-CoV-2 infection, 91·5% (90·7–92·2; 40·9 vs 1·8 per 100?000 person-days) against asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection, 97·0% (96·7–97·2; 32·5 vs 0·8 per 100?000 person-days) against symptomatic COVID-19, 97·2% (96·8–97·5; 4·6 vs 0·3 per 100?000 person-days) against COVID-19-related hospitalisation, 97·5% (97·1–97·8; 2·7 vs 0·2 per 100?000 person-days) against severe or critical COVID-19-related hospitalisation, and 96·7% (96·0–97·3; 0·6 vs 0·1 per 100?000 person-days) against COVID-19-related death. In all age groups, as vaccine coverage increased, the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 outcomes declined. 8006 of 8472 samples tested showed a spike gene target failure, giving an estimated prevalence of the B.1.1.7 variant of 94·5% among SARS-CoV-2 infections.”

      I believe the 72% of “residents” includes Israelis of Palestinian descent, but not Palestinians in Gaza, who clearly need to be vaccinated as well – this has started but how effectively remains to be seen.

      Back to the US situation: an unvaccinated American is no different from an unvaccinated visitor from another country, in terms of herd immunity math. Unless the numbers of the latter are huge, the conclusion is not changed. Recall I am assuming vaccines are or can be made effective against variants, which is supported by data so far.

      Clearly, just as Israel should vaccinate residents of Gaza for both pragmatic and moral reasons, the US should help get the rest of the world vaccinated. However, local herd immunity in the US can be achieved regardless.

      1. “However, local herd immunity in the US can be achieved regardless.”

        Can be, but sadly unlikely. I guess you don’t live in the southern US.

  9. Not just the people, every element of society failed, including the medical establishment, the CDC, WHO, US government, and just about every other institution charged with taking care of the public. It’s impossible to overstate just how completely the US not just wouldn’t, but couldn’t. It became obvious, although no one said it, that the US simply lacked the operational capability to effectively handle this pandemic. It’s why no one talks about contact tracing. So, we just threw up our hands, opened up, and waited for the miracle vaccines to arrive. That’s it, that was the strategy.

  10. Perhaps not as dire, but I suspect, as ominous, is the fact that if, well, since we have proven ourselves incapable of confronting such a calamity where the corpses are piling up right in front of our faces, how can humanity possibly believe that it can stave off climate change by initiating the far more disruptive changes in our behavior doing so would necessitate? On a worldwide basis, no less. When the main culprit, the US (in terms of its per capita carbon footprint) depends on fracturing the earth’s crust, releasing methane at unprecedented amounts, to help feed its outsized energy appetite? The growth rate in the rig count during Biden’s first hundred days exactly parallels that of the Trump administration’s … as it would have to … how else to provide the enormous energy inputs in order to bring about the transition to a net-zero (lol) energy infrastructure than burning the only hi-density fuel we have available? Like herd immunity, the Green New Deal is a false hope, a chimera to allow us to pretend what is happening right in front of us will simply go away. Let Freedom Wring (our collective necks, apparently).

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