Is the WHO chief right to say relying on herd immunity is "unethical"?


Fact Box

  • As of October 13, there have been 38 million coronavirus cases around the world, with 1 million reported deaths.
  • Older adults and people who have pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or obesity are most at risk for developing severe coronavirus symptoms.
  • Herd immunity happens when a large community becomes immune to a disease, making the virus or bacteria peter out. Certain individuals might not be immune, but the strength of the group offers protection for the remainder.
  • Tuesday, October 13, the chief of the World Health Organization warned against herd immunity, claiming the idea as “unethical.”

Bill (No)

The WHO Chief is wrong to characterize herd immunity as unethical. Herd immunity is simply an approach to slowing the spread of a virus or disease by increasing the number of people immune to it. Original guidance from the WHO at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak was to adopt measures to 'flatten the curve' (that is, keep the spread of the virus from overwhelming the capacity of our healthcare system to treat infected patients). Lockdown measures were driven by worst-case estimates of Coronavirus deaths, which totaled 1.7 million people in the U.S. alone. 

The WHO has a vested interest in convincing the public that the best approach to deal with the spread of a virus or disease is to develop and distribute vaccines. Vaccines are big business (estimated revenues of $59.2 billion in 2020). More importantly, the WHO is a partner in a global initiative called COVAX described as 'a platform that will support the research, development and manufacturing of a wide range of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.' However, there is no guarantee that a vaccine will be developed that is safe, effective, and timely in its introduction.

Fear is a convenient tool to control the public, and what better tool to use than a scary (and wildly inaccurate) estimate of the death toll from the 'novel' Coronavirus. In fact, COVID-19 is a good candidate for herd immunity because the risk to COVID-19 is primarily age-based. As Dr. Martin Kulldorff (Harvard Epidemiologist) puts it, 'herd immunity is the only way we can reduce the risk to the vulnerable people in the population.' The WHO Chief is reckless to dismiss herd immunity.

Andrew (Yes)

The WHO chief is right that herd immunity as a strategy for combatting COVID-19 is completely unethical because we have other options. Simple things like mask-wearing and social distancing are highly effective and, when used effectively, keep us from resorting to more drastic measures like lockdowns and travel bans. The choice between committing to simple steps like mask-wearing instead of deliberately letting millions of individuals get sick, many of whom would ultimately die, clearly outlines why this strategy would be unethical.

A herd immunity strategy would create much more illness, suffering, and death than using any other strategy. The Mayo Clinic estimates that more than 70% of Americans would need to contract the virus for herd immunity to take place. This would mean more than 200 million people would need to experience the suffering the disease causes. Many of these individuals have underlying conditions, are in high-risk groups, or have limited access to health care. 

Herd immunity is an unethical strategy for dealing with Coronavirus because it is a theoretical concept. Never before has herd immunity intentionally been used as a method for ending a pandemic. It would be wildly irresponsible to gamble with the health of so many individuals on an unproven concept. If midway through the herd immunity strategy, we were to determine this was the wrong route, it would most likely be impossible to reverse course. Herd immunity is a fun intellectual exercise but an unethical and unsafe public health practice. It is unnecessary, would lead to a lot of suffering and death, and has never been attempted before.

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