Policies on managing the end of COVID-19 deconfinements continue to take insufficient account of the immunity acquired by those who have had the illness.
The scientific evidence is now clear that people who have been infected with COVID-19 have acquired immunity which lasts for at least nine months. Researchers co-led by Shane Crotty at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology have gathered evidence showing that immunity may last for years, or even decades.
The study concurs with the findings of other similarly positive research. A reinfection tracker produced by BNO News has detected just 26 cases of reinfection globally. The world COVID-19 case total – which is very likely an underestimate – stands at over 63 million. It is clear that the possibility of reinfection is minimal: well under 1 person in a million.
The urgent need is to make best use of this natural immunity. Though early trials on vaccines have given encouraging results, mass distribution will take time. Hiccoughs are inevitable, but the global economy can’t afford to wait.
For industries such as tourism and hospitality brought to a standstill by the pandemic, every day counts.
This immunity is more widespread than we can measure. Millions of people have been in contact with coronavirus without being tested. In asymptomatic cases, they probably never even suspected they had it. Most of them have recovered, or will recover, without having been counted or tested in any way.
Too much time has already been lost. There was never any reason to suppose that fighting off the infection would not confer immunity. There would have been little point trying to develop vaccines had the basic principles of immunisation somehow ceased to operate. The problem was merely that not enough time had passed to allow this immunity to be measured. This period of uncertainty could have been better used if tests for the antibodies that show acquired immunity had been more widely used and repeated as needed.
As I have argued since my article in The Geopolitics of March 27, people who have immunity can safely be sent back to work in the productive economy. I extended the argument on April 8 to include the recommendation of immunity passports to allow freedom of international movement for those who have been properly tested.
Some progress on standardised protocols for international travel has been made. A UK government taskforce has recommended an exemption on self-isolation for international business travellers, and pre-departure testing with partner countries. Yet the proposals do not seek to draw on the precious resource that acquired immunity represents. The World Economic Forum is working on the development of a “CommonPass”, intended as a standard global model to let people document and prove their COVID-19 status. This is planned to include polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results, which show whether the virus is present, as well as vaccination records. The plan should take account of the evidence on acquired immunity to include serological tests for antibodies.
These tests hold the key to successfully ending confinement once and for all. The first European confinements ended suddenly, facilitating a huge surge in cases which in France led to daily case loads of well over 40,000 in recent weeks.
Some of the resulting deaths could have been avoided if tests for immunity had been used to determine the people who could be safely released. As I predicted in The Geopolitics on April 2, exiting confinement without doing immunity testing was simply a shot in the dark.
The pattern risks repeating itself. If vaccines take longer to finally approve and distribute, then the danger is of yet another upsurge of cases and a further wave of lockdowns being imposed on weary populations and struggling businesses in 2021.
We cannot simply entrust the future of our societies to vaccines that are not yet available. The evidence in favour of acquired immunity has become overwhelming, and only inertia now prevents it from being used as a main tool in the policy arsenal.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994, is the co-founder and acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).