Immunity to coronavirus is ‘fragile’ and ‘short lived,’ expert warns


It is not a “safe bet” to rely on immunity to Covid-19 as a strategy for coping with the pandemic, one expert has warned, adding that herd immunity strategies were “probably never going to work.”

Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Monday, Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said that in towns and cities where there had been coronavirus infections, only 10% to 15% of the population was likely to be immune.

“And immunity to this thing looks rather fragile — it looks like some people might have antibodies for a few months and then it might wane, so it’s not looking like a safe bet,” he said. “It’s a very deceitful virus and immunity to it is very confusing and rather short lived.”

He also raised questions about the likely success of so-called herd immunity — when a population is allowed some exposure to the virus in order to build immunity among the general population — which has been cited by health officials in Sweden, which controversially avoided a lockdown.

Despite a global race to find a vaccine for the coronavirus, experts remain uncertain about whether the antibodies present in people who have had the virus actually provide immunity to reinfection.

Top White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci speculated last month that if Covid-19 behaved like other coronaviruses, there “likely isn’t going to be a long duration of immunity” from antibodies or a vaccine. Meanwhile, the WHO has stated that it remains unclear whether those who have already caught the virus once will be immune to getting it again.

Imperial College London’s Altmann said on Monday that he was expecting a second wave of Covid-19, and that although governments were much better prepared for a resurgence in infections, the situation remained “very, very scary.”

“Anybody who thinks that it has got more mild or gone away or that somehow the problem’s going to solve itself is kidding themselves,” he told CNBC. “It’s still a very lethal virus, it still infects people very, very readily. And I think humanity isn’t used to dealing with those realities.”

He also emphasized that it was difficult to make predictions about if or when an effective vaccine for Covid-19 might be identified.

“The devil is in the detail, vaccines aren’t that easy,” Altmann said. “There’s more than 100 in trial at the moment and many things can go wrong along the way. I place no bets at the moment myself.”

David King, former chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government, warned in an interview with Sky News on Sunday that the U.K. would have an additional 27,000 deaths from Covid-19 if it stayed on its current trajectory. To date, 44,305 people have died from Covid-19 in the U.K., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Altmann told CNBC that he agreed with this projection “to some extent,” claiming that a lot of scientists, immunologists and vaccine experts still felt “very scared” about the pandemic.

He acknowledged that policymakers needed to find a balance between protecting public health and preventing socioeconomic disasters, but added: “We need to continue to be led by the science and the medicine and do the right thing. And doing the right thing means everything you can do to block transmission.”

The new strain of coronavirus, first reported to the WHO in late December, has infected more than 11.4 million people and killed 534,825 globally to date, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned last week that the pandemic was accelerating around the world as economies began to reopen.


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