January 22, 2022

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It’s irresponsible to talk about herd immunity: Eric Feigl-Ding, Federation of American Scientists

It is irresponsible to talk about herd immunity as many people have gone wrong on it in the past, says Eric Feigl-Ding, a US-based epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. In an interview with ET, he calls this a dangerous notion. Edited Excerpts:

Many health experts in India believe that the country might reach a herd immunity threshold for Covid-19. Will it ever happen?

I am nervous about that because I’ve seen so many times people said we have herd immunity. The UK did a seroprevalence study which found 90% of people in England 80% in Scotland had actually had Covid and then England got slammed with Delta and Omicron again. I do not want to count eggs before they hatch. People should not be saying that; it’s irresponsible. People had said earlier that there was herd immunity in India in February 2021. And then Delta came. This is where so many people have been wrong on this before. I don’t want to give false hope because I think false hope is very dangerous.

Any clarity on when the pandemic will end?

We are in year three and we need tailored vaccines. Some companies are developing Omicron and Delta-tailored vaccines. But still, the trials for that will take a while and that’s the concern. We need better vaccines and, of course, we need more vaccines. But until we do, this is going to be a long-running thing because it seems like your natural infection immunity does not protect you far beyond six months. The vaccine boost also wanes.

How do you think Omicron will pan out for India, given that it is a populous country?

Omicron is extremely contagious, and I have seen cases rising in India. India’s Delta wave was much earlier. We have seen that the protection from previous Delta infection against Omicron is very low, the neutralisation is very low. So, it will look milder at first, because a lot of people have been previously infected. But the issue is how much protection does it give you and that’s the biggest concern because I think South Africa’s Omicron ended very quickly because the earlier wave was very recent. It was in September, October. India’s Delta wave was in April, May, June. And so, if it would have been September October, there was much more comfort. We know there is a past immunity, but we also know that Omicron is very penetrant and we know the past immunity wanes after six months.

So how much protection will India have because of the Delta?

I’m not sure. I think it has a little bit less protection than South Africa. But maybe India will have a better outcome than the US because obviously, obesity, diabetes, or other risk factors are really major risk factors in the United States, but it’s not always as common elsewhere.

India has started giving precautionary doses to a certain section of people. Do you think we are late in introducing it?

It’s always a good idea to give boosters after four or five months.

What works better: giving the same vaccine as a booster or mixing it?

I think mix and match will be better, but I don’t think the same vaccine three times is not that bad.

Do you think lockdown is the only way to stop the numbers from surging?

Lockdown is tricky. There’s lots of other things you can do. I’m not against lockdown, but I think lockdown should be the last thing you do.

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