Curious as to whether herd immunity against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) might slow the spread of the disease? Understand how herd immunity works and what experts are saying about its potential impact on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected — not just those who are immune.
Often, a percentage of the population must be capable of getting a disease in order for it to spread. This is called a threshold proportion. If the proportion of the population that is immune to the disease is greater than this threshold, the spread of the disease will decline. This is known as the herd immunity threshold.
What percentage of a community needs to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity? It varies from disease to disease. The more contagious a disease is, the greater the proportion of the population that needs to be immune to the disease to stop its spread. For example, the measles is a highly contagious illness. It's estimated that 94% of the population must be immune to interrupt the chain of transmission.
There are two paths to herd immunity for COVID-19 — vaccines and infection.
A vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19 would be an ideal approach to achieving herd immunity. Vaccines create immunity without causing illness or resulting complications. Herd immunity makes it possible to protect the population from a disease, including those who can't be vaccinated, such as newborns or those who have compromised immune systems. Using the concept of herd immunity, vaccines have successfully controlled deadly contagious diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, rubella and many others.
Reaching herd immunity through vaccination sometimes has drawbacks, though. Protection from some vaccines can wane over time, requiring revaccination. Sometimes people don't get all of the shots that they need to be completely protected from a disease.
Related post: Understanding herd immunity
Journalists: Sound bites with Dr. Gregory Poland are in the downloads at the end of the post. Please courtesy "Gregory Poland, M.D. / Vaccine Research Group / Mayo Clinic."
In addition, some people may object to vaccines because of religious objections, fears about the possible risks or skepticism about the benefits. People who object to vaccines often live in the same neighborhoods or attend the same religious services or schools. If the proportion of vaccinated people in a community falls below the herd immunity threshold, exposure to a contagious disease could result in the disease quickly spreading. Measles has recently resurged in several parts of the world with relatively low vaccination rates, including the United States. Opposition to vaccines can pose a real challenge to herd immunity.
Herd immunity can also be reached when a sufficient number of people in the population have recovered from a disease and have developed antibodies against future infection. For example, those who survived the 1918 flu (influenza) pandemic were later immune to infection with the H1N1 flu, a subtype of influenza A. During the 2009-10 flu season, H1N1 caused the respiratory infection in humans that was commonly referred to as swine flu.
However, there are some major problems with relying on community infection to create herd immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19. First, it isn't yet clear if infection with the COVID-19 virus makes a person immune to future infection.
Research suggests that after infection with some coronaviruses, reinfection with the same virus — though usually mild and only happening in a fraction of people — is possible after a period of months or years. Further research is needed to determine the protective effect of antibodies to the virus in those who have been infected.
Even if infection with the COVID-19 virus creates long-lasting immunity, a large number of people would have to become infected to reach the herd immunity threshold. Experts estimate that in the U.S., 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic. If many people become sick with COVID-19 at once, the health care system could quickly become overwhelmed. This amount of infection could also lead to serious complications and millions of deaths, especially among older people and those who have chronic conditions.
Until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, it's crucial to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect individuals at increased risk of severe illness, including older adults and people of any age with underlying health conditions.To reduce the risk of infection:
Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding along with guidelines and recommendations may have changed since the original publication date.
Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for additional updates on COVID-19. For more information and all your COVID-19 coverage, go to the Mayo Clinic News Network and mayoclinic.org.