Philippine Daily Inquirer
THINK TANK HEAD PROPOSES STEPS TO DEVELOP ‘HERD IMMUNITY’
Allow healthy adults to return to work. Let children go back to school and “infect each other.” Isolate the sick and elderly in care facilities. Maintain social distancing but relax quarantine protocols.
These are some of the methods proposed by environmentalist and civil society leader Nicanor Perlas in fighting the coronavirus pandemic—an approach that upends conventional wisdom and borrows from the concept of “herd immunity.”
In an open letter dated April 18, Perlas urged President Duterte to consider a new tack against COVID-19 amid calls to extend, modify or lift the Luzon lockdown that lapses on April 30.
Perlas, the founder and executive director of Solution Ecosystems Activator Inc., a sustainable development think tank, identified seven steps which he said were similar to Sweden’s controversial lowscale strategy, under his “Precision Quarantine and Immunity” proposal:
ʎ Protect risk groups especially the elderly.
ʎ Self-isolate immediately if one has cough, fever or any symptom of illness.
ʎ Reopen schools for children to hasten herd immunity.
ʎ Allow teenagers and the working population to continue their normal lives, subject to safe distancing and hygienic practices.
ʎ Reopen regions, provinces, cities, towns, barangays and institutions with low-risk densities.
ʎ Instruct all age groups on how to strengthen their immune system, and
ʎ Install a communication, monitoring and enforcement system, including occasional randomized antibody testing.
To run its course
In a nutshell, a herd immunity approach means allowing a disease to run its course through a population, such that when enough people are infected, the whole group becomes immune, stopping the virus in its tracks.
There are ethical questions surrounding this idea, as it presumes that in the absence of a working vaccine, a certain proportion of the population will die before immunity can be achieved.
But in a phone interview with the Inquirer, Perlas said he was convinced that promoting herd immunity would better control the spread of the virus and be better for the economy than tougher or longer quarantines.
“Herd immunity is on the way in many countries. This means that the collective natural immunity of people can withstand a viral attack, as manifested in the huge number of humans who have not succumbed to COVID-19,” he said.
2 birds with 1 stone
Now 70, Perlas ran for president on a sustainable-development platform in 2010.
In 2003, he received Sweden’s Right to Livelihood Award for his campaign on the effects of corporate globalization. In 1994, the United Nations Environment Program gave him the Global 500 Award for his campaign against the use of poisonous pesticides by Filipino farmers.
In his letter to the Mr. Duterte, Perlas wrote: “Mr. President, what if you can have it both ways: save Filipino lives and at the same time save Philippine society and its economy from self-imploding?”
He argued that there had been an observable decline in the growth rate of COVID-19 infection in the Philippines from March 14 to April 16.
“Even as the cumulative cases per day are increasing, the number of new cases per day in the Philippines is trending toward decline as compared with previous days,” Perlas said in a briefing paper that accompanied his letter.
He claimed that the case fatality rate of the Philippines was on a similar downward trajectory, although it still stood at 6.6 percent as of April 16— slightly higher than the global average of 6.4 percent.
Describing the risks of COVID-19 as comparable to that of the common flu and pneumonia, he noted that there were 57,700 deaths from pneumonia alone in 2016, resulting in higher fatality numbers than COVID-19 even when averaged by month.
He conceded that flu and pneumonia cases were not known to overwhelm hospitals and health systems and cause so many deaths among healthcare workers to the degree that COVID-19 had done in a span of a few months.
But he maintained that the dangers of the disease had been wildly exaggerated as hysteria gripped the world. “In the beginning, I was panicking just like everybody else,” Perlas told the Inquirer. “Oh, my God, look at those numbers. But as I continued to follow it, I began to realize we had problems with testing. The interesting part was that everywhere the ratio of tests to new cases was constant.”
He insisted that based on the global experience, “it’s not as virulent, it’s not as strong as we were led to believe.”
According to Perlas’ proposal, the government should take great effort to find, isolate and treat the elderly, especially those with illness. “We recommend isolating them with a caregiver. This will protect them from the virus ... As for the healthy elderly people, they should be encouraged to take shopping trips only if necessary,” he said.
The elderly and infirm “should not comingle with young children who may be carriers of the virus but who are not vulnerable to them because of their strong immune system,” he said.
Perlas said there should also be a focus on promoting self-isolation among those experiencing any symptom of COVID-19, such as dry cough or fever.
He said schools for children should be reopened because kids “have a high degree of resistance to a viral attack.”
“As Dr. [Anders] Tegnell pointed out … children should be allowed to infect each other. In this way, herd immunity develops faster,” Perlas said, referring to the Swedish epidemiologist who had been championing the Scandinavian country’s novel approach to the pandemic.
Perlas said teenagers and the working population should be permitted to go on with their normal lives, “provided they follow safe distancing and hygienic practices.”
Having narrow window hours in supermarkets and drugstores was ‘’counterproductive’’ since it only led to longer queues and bigger crowds. “It’s better to have them open 24 hours a day, so it will be safer.”
Perlas differed from those advocating mass testing for COVID-19, saying he preferred occasional randomized antibody testing, using the sampling methods of polling firms like Social Weather Stations.
“You don’t need to test everybody to arrive at the big picture or a basic picture,” he said.
He offered no specific time frame as to the reopening of schools, but suggested that the Department of Education retain its original schedule for the 2020 academic year without disruption.
“Of all my proposals, the reopening of schools seems to be the most controversial, but that’s because most people do not understand how strong children’s immune systems are,” he said, citing very low COVID-19 numbers for those below 20.