Why it matters how we reach herd immunity

Some have suggested that it would be a reasonable strategy to allow the coronavirus to move freely through populations to achieve herd immunity. But experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say that such a strategy is wrongheaded because too many people would die as a result.

“The cost of herd immunity [through natural infection] is extraordinarily high,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology in a September 28, 2020 Vox article. He added that herd immunity achieved through natural infection would disproportionately harm some of the most vulnerable, marginalized groups in the country. “Because of the fact that some groups are more at risk of becoming infected than others—and they are predominantly people from racial [and] ethnic minorities and predominantly poor people with less good housing—we are effectively forcing those people to have a higher risk of infection and bear the brunt of the pandemic,” he said.

Christine Tedijanto, a PhD student in the Population Health Sciences program concentrating on infectious disease epidemiology, commented on one idea for achieving herd immunity that was reportedly floated by White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas—allowing millions of young people to become infected with COVID-19 while somehow trying to protect older people and others who are considered at greater risk. “I think it’s impossible to think that you can have infections only among younger people, and not let them spread to other groups with populations that might be more vulnerable,” she said.

Read the Vox article: What people get wrong about herd immunity, explained by epidemiologists