WHY do I keep reading in various news outlets that Covid-19 cases and deaths in the US are ‘soaring’ and ‘surging’ when the data actually shows new cases in decline and deaths beginning to plateau? The same goes for the global picture: the WHO claims the epidemic is ‘accelerating’, yet new cases and deaths appear to be headed to a slowdown. Is the truth that the virus is running out of steam around the world, but for some reason many don’t want to know?
One of the more remarkable and encouraging recent Covid stories is what happened when the virus ripped through the slums of Mumbai. A recent survey in Dharavi, a poor area of the city in south west India and home to around a million people, found 57 per cent of residents with antibodies to the virus, the highest figure so far for a population-based survey anywhere in the world. Yet despite such widespread contagion, only 253 people in the slum have died with the virus, and the epidemic there appears to be over. The low mortality rate may be attributable to the low obesity levels, low age profile and high sun exposure of the population, and perhaps a widespread use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). It will also have helped that the authorities ensured good medical care was provided for the sick.
Jayaprakash Muliyil, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of India’s National Institute of Epidemiology, remarked that the decline of the epidemic may well be due to the emergence of herd immunity: ‘One explanation is they did an excellent job containing it, the other is that herd immunity has been reached. The virus does its work. The virus doesn’t worry about your quarantine and it is much more efficient than your efforts to contain it.’
The 57 per cent figure might be thought to challenge the idea, put forward by various epidemiologists, that herd immunity can emerge at much lower antibody rates, between 5 and 25 per cent, owing to high levels of pre-existing immunity and diverse levels of connectivity. In fact, though, it is supportive of this idea, since the slum has an extremely high population density and, with up to 80 sharing toilet facilities, an extreme degree of connectivity. The wider city of Mumbai, like New Delhi, had an antibody rate of around 24 per cent.
The population density of Dharavi is around 718,000 per square mile, which is around 27 times New York City’s 27,000, and over 55 times London’s 13,000. The result is a greatly elevated level of exposure to the virus across the population, and an increased viral load that in many cases may overwhelm the body’s initial ‘T cell’ defences. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S009167492030631X
It is important to recognise that the herd immunity threshold is not the final proportion of the population that will be infected and develop antibodies. Rather, it is the proportion that must develop antibodies in order for the epidemic to go into decline. As Oxford University’s Professor Sunetra Gupta explains, the herd immunity threshold is ‘the point at which enough people are immune to a pathogen that the rate of growth will start to decline. But there will still be more cases. Typically in an epidemic, we overshoot that threshold. So if you see an area that has a seroprevalence with 60 per cent, that doesn’t mean that herd immunity can’t be much lower than that. What that threshold does define for us is how many people in the community you need to be immune for that thing not to take off.’
So the 57 per cent antibodies in Dharavi includes an overshoot – how much overshoot is hard to say as in such a densely populated community the herd immunity threshold will also be higher. But it shows that even in a super-dense and super-connected population like Dharavi the herd immunity threshold is still some way below 60 per cent.
Why then do many governments and their advisers continue to work on the assumption that a country needs 60 per cent antibodies if it is to avoid a large second wave? A proportion they hope to achieve through vaccinations with ongoing suppression in the meantime, despite the possibility, voiced again by the WHO this week, that a vaccine may never come, or if it does may provide only limited resistance.
What is stopping people from examining more fully the evidence that this is a mistaken assumption, and a hugely costly one? Is it rooted, perhaps at a subconscious level, in a Left-liberal hatred of capitalism, combined with a visceral loathing of Donald Trump? How many of those involved in driving policy and messaging in the worlds of politics, medicine, media and technology are on some level really quite happy to see governments moving to socialise large parts of the economy, splurge on spending and increase control of the population? You don’t need to subscribe to a conspiracy theory to see that a lot of people, especially on the Left and among elites and public sector workers, may actually be keen on many of the ways Covid-19 is pushing governments and populations to behave, and this may be colouring the way they see and present the data and evidence.
Is this why the media in the US and elsewhere often seem so eager to present the cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the most frightening way possible, driving Project Fear and stoking disproportionate terror of the virus in the population? Is this why they consistently fail to showcase the views of more optimistic scientists and the evidence that backs them up? Do they see this as advancing their goals to bring down Trump, tame capitalism, curb personal liberty and socialise the economy?
If so, or even something more intentional and sinister, it may not just be the virus we are up against, but a whole way of seeing the world, a vision for remodelling society along collectivist lines which the virus has merely provided the latest opportunity to advance.