Oxford epidemiologist says COVID herd immunity threshold may be 'much lower' than earlier estimates

Exposure to other coronaviruses 'could have played a role' - epidemiologist Sunetra Guptaargues

Published: July 22, 2020 2:26pm

Updated: July 22, 2020 4:59pm

A University of Oxford epidemiologist is arguing that the COVID-19 herd immunity threshold may be "much lower" than earlier estimates, which if correct could mean the pandemic may be closer to ending than many experts now assert. 

The herd immunity threshold is a number signifying the percentage of a population that needs to contract a disease before it dies out or greatly recedes from its peak infection levels. 

Many estimates at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested that threshold needed to be as high as 70%, raising fears that the U.S. would have to have millions of coronavirus deaths before the disease abates. 

Sunetra Gupta, a theoretical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, said in a recent interview with Reaction that the real herd-immunity threshold may be significantly lower.

Gupta, who has been a critic of the ongoing coronavirus lockdowns that most major governments around the world have adopted since the turn of the year, cited several key pieces of data. They include antibody surveys and the behavior of the virus when lockdowns are lifted. She suggests that data shows "the level of herd immunity needed to stop the thing from exploding again is actually much lower than the figures that are currently being thrown around quite incautiously might suggest."

Gupta in the interview, also expressed astonishment at what she called the "bellicose language used with respect to the virus," namely the widespread desire to "annihilate" the disease. She called COVID-19 "a threat we have to deal with" rather than something to destroy. 

Herd immunity, she said, is simply "a way of preventing vulnerable people from dying."

"In an ideal situation," she said, "you would protect the vulnerable as best you can, let people go about their business, allow herd immunity to build up, make sure the economy doesn’t crash, make sure the arts are preserved, and make sure qualities of kindness and tolerance remain in place."

Yet "we live, it seems, in this state of terror," she said. 

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