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'An awful lot of young people might have to die' if we were to pursue herd immunity strategy, Prof Nolan says

Dr Ronan Glynn said this evening “it’s certainly not a strategy that will be adopted in this country”.

Professor Philip Nolan at tonight's briefing.
Professor Philip Nolan at tonight's briefing.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

SENIOR PUBLIC HEALTH figures have spoken out very strongly against Ireland adopting any strategy akin to “herd immunity” to tackle Covid-19 and made clear it’s not a strategy that will be adopted here. 

Pursuing it would ignore the long-term health effects for some people who develop Covid-19, would mean many young people would die and make it more difficult to prevent older and more at-risk populations getting ill and dying from Covid-19.

This concept has been frequently referenced since the beginning of the pandemic, and basically suggests that lockdowns would be avoided by allowing the virus to spread amongst communities while putting in safeguards to protect those most at risk of getting seriously ill or dying from Covid-19.

The hope is that, eventually, a natural immunity to the disease is developed.

In the early days of Covid-19, it appeared the UK government was pursuing such a strategy but that quickly changed as lockdown measures were introduced amid a sharp spike in cases, hospitalisations and deaths. 

After being raised at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 response earlier, public health officials at tonight’s Department of Health briefing spoke strongly against the idea of pursuing herd immunity. 

NPHET’s epidemiological modelling advisory group chair Professor Philip Nolan said tonight there was no guarantee herd immunity would work and is ethically questionable.

“The problem with that entire strategy is first of all there’s no guarantee that we will build up herd immunity to a significant extent by letting the disease travel through young people,” he said.

An awful lot of young people might have to die in order for sufficient infections to occur to get anywhere near it. 

Professor Nolan also said that said that “even if it were ethically” appropriate to suggest that more at-risk groups from Covid-19, such as older people, isolate themselves from the rest of the community while such a strategy was being pursued, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t get the disease.

“I could certainly never advise we take the kind of risks explicit in adopting this kind of strategy that allows this disease to travel through young people with some, in my view, vain hope of protecting older people,” he said. “And also in the unproven hope it will render the population immune for future infection.”

HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said the evidence is not justified in people having a sustained immunity after they’ve caught this virus. Specifically referencing safeguards on nursing homes, even the strongest defences wouldn’t protect residents there if the virus was allowed to spread rampantly in the community, he said.

Dr Henry said that isolating older people and letting them “fend for themselves” is “simply not acceptable and has no place in any civilised society”. 

Acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn added that the strategy ignores the increasing evidence around the long-term effects of Covid-19 on people of all ages. 

“This disease has consequences for people of all ages. It’s certainly not a strategy that will be adopted in this country,” he said. 

These comments echoed comments on herd immunity made earlier today at the Oireachtas Committee.

Addressing TDs, former chief epidemiologist for Sweden and senior World Health Organization figure Dr Johann Giesecke said there was no “100% effective way” of allowing younger populations to catch the disease and also prevent its transmission to older people, particularly in care homes.

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He said: “Sweden never had herd immunity as a goal or strategy, but the strategy of protecting the old and vulnerable while allowing some spread in the population has had the by-product of herd immunity.

“I do not agree with the zero-covid approach.  I do not believe it is possible or feasible as a solution.  We would need to do it in each country in the world.  Otherwise, it cannot work. New Zealand managed to go without any cases for 102 days and then had quite an outbreak.”

With reporting from Christina Finn and Michelle Hennessy at the Department of Health

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Sean Murray

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