Herd immunity was never going to end the covid pandemic

July 25, 2022

Herd immunity was never going to end the covid pandemic:

In the early days of covid’s global march, when vaccines were still said to be well over a year away and social distancing was the only way to slow transmission, the country needed a goal, a way to conceptualize the pandemic’s end. Herd immunity became that finish line, as experts including Anthony Fauci, now President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, communicated a common refrain: Once enough people became immune — either via (catastrophic) mass infection or widespread vaccination — the virus would be starved of new hosts, its rampant spread would stop and normal life would resume.

The details of when and how this seemingly magical threshold would be crossed were fuzzy. Some scientists who study viruses thought only 20-some percent of the population needed to be immune; others estimated it’d be closer to 90. A minority of experts wanted to reach herd immunity as quickly as possible by letting the virus rip through the population rather than wait for vaccines to become available. But no matter the number or method, the concept of herd immunity represented a framework through which public officials and the media (including me) could understand what it would take for the threat to end.

It’s time to update that framework. For this virus, herd immunity was probably never a realistic end goal, said Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. “Frankly, I wish it had not entered the public consciousness in the way that it has,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people make it out to be.”

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