US unlikely to achieve COVID-19 herd immunity, experts say

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The United States is unlikely to reach herd immunity as more contagious COVID-19 variants spread and many Americans remain reluctant to get vaccinated, experts now believe.

Instead, the virus — which has killed more than 577,000 nationwide — will only become more manageable, scientists said.

“The virus is unlikely to go away,” Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the New York Times.

“But we want to do all we can to check that it’s likely to become a mild infection.”

Currently, just under half of Americans have received one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and about a third are fully vaccinated, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Eradication is, I think, impossible at this stage,” Dr. Bary Pradelsk, a French economist told The Times.

“But you want local elimination,” he said.

Earlier in the pandemic, scientists had estimated that herd immunity would be reached when 60 to 70 percent of people either had natural immunity from prior infection or immunity through inoculation.

A year later, that estimate had risen to at least 80 percent, largely due to highly-transmissible new mutations, The Times noted.

But now, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, is urging the public not to focus on herd immunity — and instead just focus on getting themselves vaccinated.

“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he told the newspaper. 

“That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”

In addition to new variants like B.1.1.7 — the strain first identified in Britain which is believed to be 60 percent more transmissible — vaccine hesitancy also plays a role in achieving a state of herd immunity.

About 22 percent of Americans say they will not get a vaccine, according to a CBS News poll conducted in late April.    

That number may drop, but not significantly, according Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.  

“It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say,” he told The Times.

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