What ‘herd immunity’?
BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon (The Freeman) - October 17, 2020 - 12:00am

Department of Health Region 7 Director Dr. Jaime Bernadas was quoted in the papers the other day stating his observation that Cebu City is developing ‘herd immunity’ from COVID-19 as the region has flattened the epidemiological curve.

I was shocked but in a way not surprised. The good director has never been known to be circumspect with his words from the start of this pandemic. When Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) sent a high-level delegation to Cebu to help curb the number of COVID-19 cases here last June, it was a welcome break from the usual spin and excuses heard from regional officials and local government deputies.

When the IATF-EID big guns left for other regions, they designated an able deputy chief implementer of the IATF-EID here in the person of Cebu City Councilor Joel Garganera. Together with Mayor Edgardo Labella, Garganera did most of the talking about the pandemic response from thereon and that went well.

Then came Director Bernadas the other day with huge words: ‘herd immunity’. It was shocking because I never heard of those words from the mouths of even local infectious disease specialists. Those words were like taboo so to speak, and there is a reason for that.

‘Herd immunity’ is “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence”, say 80 researchers in a warning letter published by the peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet this week. In a report by The Guardian magazine, these scientists say that the interest in herd immunity “comes from ‘widespread demoralisation and diminishing trust’ as a result of restrictions being reimposed in many countries because of surging infections in a second wave.”

And here comes our own regional health official speaking about his observation about a “developing ‘herd immunity’ in Cebu City.” “This is very significant because more and more people have now responded to the exposure of the virus, which means we are on the road to achieving ‘herd immunity’,” Bernadas said.

He was referring in particular to the results of the surveillance testing using anti-body tests on the Carbon market vendors conducted by the DOH and Cebu City Emergency Operations Center last month. In that test, 47.48% of the 2,191 Carbon market vendors or 1,047 were tested IgG positive, according to a report by The FREEMAN. This indicates, Bernadas said, that these people were asymptomatic and had already recovered from active infection of the virus.

It’s as if putting the words ‘herd immunity’ in quotation marks qualifies the reckless statement in that context in the eyes and ears of a quarantine-weary public.

The use of anti-body testing, also known as serology test, can help identify people who may have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus or have recovered from the COVID-19 infection. But it is too much of a stretch to say that we are developing ‘herd immunity’ just because many of those tested were IgG positive.

The US Centers for Disease Control has cautioned that having a positive antibody test does not mean you are immune to COVID-19. While a positive test result on a SARS-CoV-2 antibody test indicates that you may have recently or previously had COVID-19, there is a chance, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, that the positive result is wrong. False positive tests may occur because antibody tests may detect coronaviruses other than SARS-CoV-2, such as those that cause the common cold, says the US FDA.

The Swedish COVID-19 response, under the backdrop of its government officials thinking about herd immunity in March, has been described in a recent Time magazine article as a disaster. “Swedish officials have misrepresented data in an effort to make the situation seem more under control than it really is,” wrote Kelly Bjorklund for Time. As a result, “the Swedish way has yielded little but death and misery. And, this situation has not been honestly portrayed to the Swedish people or to the rest of the world.”

Our own IATF-EID and LGUs deserve credit and thanks for the immense efforts they are putting day in and day out to make Cebu an emerging success story in COVID-19 response. But obviously not all members of the team are competent to handle accurate and well-developed health communication. Some are still stuck in their traditional public relations spin and slants. They should leave the speaking to local point person Councilor Joel Garganera, who can provide clear, honest, and valid information to the public.

ianmanticajon@gmail.com

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