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How close are we to natural herd immunity?

Dr. Amy Edwards, an infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals in Cleveland, discusses the potential for natural herd immunity against the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has everyone waiting for a vaccine, but some are hoping natural herd immunity may take care of the pandemic.

“This virus isn’t going anywhere,” says Dr. Amy Edwards, an Infectious Disease Specialist at University Hospitals. “Until we reach herd immunity, by hook or by crook, whether it’s by a vaccine or by five years of suffering, we’re stuck with this virus.

The answer to solving the COVID-19 pandemic is herd immunity, which a population can reach through a vaccine or naturally if enough people develop immunity through infection. We don’t know how close we are to a vaccine, so how close are we to natural heard immunity? To answer that, we first need to understand whether you can get infected with the virus a second time.

“It doesn’t appear to be a common phenomenon, but there have been a few case reports of people who have gotten it, who have clearly recovered and had landed back in the hospital with symptoms,” says Dr. Edwards. “ We think it’s a very low percentage. To be honest, there is some research going into the idea that maybe they didn’t catch it again, but maybe the coronavirus went dormant and their body relapsed in some form or fashion.”

Even if it’s rare to get infected a second time, that’s what we know for the short term. Doctors still aren’t sure how long immunity would last. One study found the amount of anti-bodies in a small group of infected people dropped as much as 96.2 percent in just a few months.

 “Trying to figure out whether people are immune is key to understanding whether we can even achieve herd immunity,” explains Dr. Edwards.

Recent estimates say we’d need to reach around 90% of the population to achieve herd immunity. Dr. Edwards says, without a vaccine, that’s a long way off and comes with a very high price.

“Current estimates are that somewhere between 2-3% of the U.S. population have been removed and we’ve killed 100,000 people to get there,” says Dr. Edwards. “So, if we need 90% to be immune, how are we going to get to 90% safely? It would cost us however many hundreds of thousands of lives to get there and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

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