Officially, the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic has infected over 2.7 million people around the globe. But in reality, the total number of infections could be millions more. According to antibody tests conducted in New York, up to 21% of the city’s entire population has already been exposed to the virus, and most of these people were not recorded as infected.
These data build on similar findings in Italy and Germany that show vast numbers of undetected infections.
COVID-19 may not be as fatal as we think. And mass lockdowns may not be the best way to deal with the disease. A herd immunity strategy, as practiced in Sweden, may be more effective at stopping the pandemic.
When the human body is exposed to a virus, the immune system produces an antibody protein designed to counteract the pathogen. Antibody tests look for the presence of these antibodies to determine if a person has ever been infected.
A massive antibody study in New York estimates that 21% of the city’s population has been infected with the coronavirus. With a population of 8.4 million people, this implies that up to 1.2 million New Yorkers have contracted COVID-19 compared to an official count of 146,000–a 10x difference.
These data suggest that the coronavirus is not nearly as fatal as its official case fatality rate would indicate. And lockdowns are not effective at stopping the virus. The virus will spread until the population gets herd immunity.
The antibody tests in New York mirror similar findings in other hard-hit areas in Europe where antibody tests found larges swathes of the population were already immune to the coronavirus.
One of the first large-scale antibody tests was conducted in Heinsberg, Germany, where 14% of the population had antibodies to the virus. By comparing the estimated number of uncounted infections with recorded deaths, the study suggested that coronavirus’ death rate is as low as 0.37% compared to a 3.4% case fatality rate estimated by the WHO and 0.1% for seasonal influenza.
This information doesn’t minimize the dangers of coronavirus. The disease spreads far more rapidly than the seasonal flu. There is no vaccine, and there are disturbing reports of some people getting re-infected with COVID-19 after previously testing negative.
That 21% of New York’s population and counting (the state added 6,313 additional cases on Thursday) may have been infected raises questions about the effectiveness of America’s massive lockdowns. The restrictions don’t seem to be working very well, and the virus is still spreading rapidly. But if the real death rate is just 0.37%, this may not be such a bad thing.
Sweden, a wealthy country in Northern Europe, believes herd immunity is the key to fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The Swedish government encourages young, healthy people to go out and potentially get infected to create widespread immunity to the disease that will protect more vulnerable people from catching it.
So far, the country records 1,659 cases per 1 million people and 200 deaths per million people–well within the normal range for Europe. For comparison, Germany reports 1,828 cases per 1 million, while neighboring Norway reports 1,365 cases per 1 million people.
According to Dr. Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s public health agency, data indicate that up to 20% of Stockholm’s population is already immune to the virus, and the community could have herd immunity within weeks. This suggests Sweden has reached a similar spot as New York on the epidemiological curve without the economy-shattering lockdowns.
This comes at a time when nations in North America and Europe mull reopening their economies.
Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are taking steps to end the lockdowns with schools and shops reopening. But the American public remains divided on the issue with Trump appearing to flip flop between supporting the lockdowns and reviving the economy. Several American states have plans to ease restrictions in May.
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