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Why catching COVID-19 on purpose is a bad idea 

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Posted: Wednesday, November 25, 2020. 1:23 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Getting sick is never a good idea even if you’re trying to get out of something. But some argue that in the case of COVID-19, one can sacrifice oneself to ensure the disease dies out more quickly. 

The BBC has been investigating the science behind vaccination, herd immunity, and previous pandemics such as H1N1 influenza (swine flu), which hit in 2009 and 2010. 

For good reason, humans have tried extraordinarily to avoid infection – whether dousing oneself in herbs brewed in cider vinegar to stave off bubonic plague in the Middle Ages; early practicing of social distancing in Sardinia, Italy, in the 16th century (including limiting personal activity outdoors); simply evacuating half its residents during an outbreak as Philadelphia did in 1793 when yellow fever struck; to the more bizarre such as toad-vomit lozenges developed by no less than Sir Isaac Newton during the Black Death, and women pulling all their teeth in the 1940s as a wedding or 18th birthday gift. (Happy birthday, you now need dentures!) 

But these days some believe catching Covid-19 on purpose will help get the rest of us back to normality or whatever passes for it. Scientists behind the Great Barrington Declaration suggest that the most compassionate approach to the pandemic would be to “allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.” Their claims have been disputed. 

The case of Sweden has been widely debated. It took a more relaxed approach to COVID-19, not locking down until recently and not even encouraging the public to wear masks, depending on immunity to keep case numbers down. 

Even with viable vaccines now starting to emerge, cases continue to rise in major countries from the United States to Europe, Mexico to India and the struggle between mass lockdown and mass infection continues. 

Recent research has indicated that the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, which emerged from pigs in eastern Mexico, had given those infected by it a kind of universal protection to other types of the flu. 

Generally, influenza has various strains of which our immune systems provide protection against the particular strain caught. It’s why you can catch it again and again, and even need a vaccine against it.  

But researchers say antibody responses by those infected were cross reactive, not only to the particular strain but others as well. It was so effective that every other kind of influenza A that had existed in humans, the type that causes both pandemics and seasonal flu disappeared. Unfortunately, it also proved deadly for young people and linked to the development of autoimmune conditions, including type 1 diabetes and narcolepsy. 

Vaccines can be generated in modern conditions to target particular viruses and modified to be taken in different ways to ensure maximum efficiency. There are already a number of vaccines which can be more protective than natural infections, including the zoster, Hib, HPV, and tetanus vaccines. 

In other cases, vaccination would clearly be preferable to natural infection because once you’re infected, the pathogen never goes away. Famous examples include HSV-2, which causes genital herpes, and the dreaded HIV which causes AIDS. There aren’t yet any licensed vaccines that can prevent either, but a candidate for the former has already shown promising results in animal studies, while a potential option for the latter has passed the first safety test in humans. 

All this means that becoming infected with Covid-19 may not have the same payoff as receiving the vaccine. 

Herd immunity is a kind of disease resistance that occurs within a population, as a result of the build-up of immunity in individuals. It doesn’t make viruses disappear completely but limits their spread as long as they are contagious – it doesn’t work for infections that are caught in other ways. If few people are susceptible to a certain pathogen, there won’t be much of it in circulation. But there is no reliable threshold at which herd immunity can be reached, such as the commonly cited 66% of people for Covid-19. Instead, the point at which it materialises depends the reproduction (R) number, which represents the number of people that the average person infects. Where the R number is high, the number of people that need to be immune before herd immunity kicks in is high also. 

Simply depending on natural herd immunity is too dynamic and impractical as the higher the number the less protection is offered to those who haven’t already had the virus. There is also the matter of reinfection and respread, and the fact that too many may die for herd immunity to be practical. Catching any pathogen is a gamble – especially one that’s new to humankind.  

A wide range of longer-term health problems are now believed to be caused by Covid-19 in those who have been infected – something that has now become known as “long-Covid”. No one knows how enduring long Covid will be. The syndrome of fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog and joint pain, among other things, occurs in one in 20 people who have recovered from Covid-19. There are already signs that the consequences of the pandemic might be with us for years to come. In all, we say that limiting movements, keeping your distance, wearing a mask, and washing your hands should be easy – certainly better than toad vomit-flavoured lozenges or the prospect of tooth pulling. 

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