Can herd immunity tame the onslaught of COVID-19 in India?

A country achieves herd immunity when a large cross section of its population around a specific area becomes resistant to certain viruses and bacteria.

A group of experts are hopeful that herd immunity strategy will work well to bring down COVID-19 infections in India. Here's a lowdown on this measure and its probable impacts.

The novel coronavirus, which emerged on 31st December last year, has infected over 4 million people globally, taking the death toll to 2.9 lakh. India is currently home to 49,219 active COVID-19 (the infection caused by the novel coronavirus) cases with 2549 people losing their lives to this condition. With scientists racing against time to find vaccines and medicines against this condition, social distancing and complete lockdown seem to be the only protective measures against this dangerously contagious virus.

Though strict lockdown measures implemented in India from 25th March have shown some improvement in taming down the novel coronavirus, the number of COVID-19 patients in the country is still on the rise. That's why experts are looking forward to a strategy known as herd immunity as a potential weapon in the battle against novel coronavirus in India, where a large cross section of the population is young.

The controversial strategy, already discarded by the UK due to the possibility of high fatality rate, aims at exposing a huge percentage of the population to the coronavirus, allowing them to get infected by it first, recover, develop antibodies against the infection and become resistant to it. It has been found that one COVID-19 patient can infect two to three people. This means, for herd immunity to be effective and infection rates to go down, around 60 per cent of the population need to be resistant to the novel coronavirus.

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According to researchers at the Princeton University and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP) a public health advocacy group based in New Delhi and Washington, herd strategy can actually work in India because we have a high proportion of younger population, who have a low death and hospitalization risk from the novel coronavirus. Some estimates suggest that 93.5 per cent of the Indian population fall in the under-65 age group. Experts speculate that if India exposes its people to the novel coronavirus in a controlled way, then by November, 60 per cent of its population may be immune to the COVID-19 infection.

To implement the herd immunity strategy, the research teams from Princeton and CDDEP have recommended that India should lift its lockdown allowing people under 60 to get back to their normal life. However, large gatherings should be avoided and people should continue to wear masks while this strategy is followed. The team has also suggested that the government should amp up COVID-19 testing as the society reopens. This makes it easy to identify and isolate infected patients. Senior citizens, however, should carry on with the quarantine protocols. Also, the government should prioritise them for testing and treatment.

"Since herd immunity strategy relies on the body's immune system to develop resistance to the virus, the age groups with weaker immunity are not ideal for the implementation of this strategy," says Rakesh Maurya, Lead Scientist, Redcliffe Life Sciences.


A country achieves herd immunity when a large cross section of its population around a specific area becomes resistant to a pathogen (viruses, bacteria, etc.) As a considerable size of the population gets immune to a particular virus or bacterium, it stops spreading due to the lack of hosts. Herd immunity can be achieved in two ways:

Natural immunity

Exposure to certain viruses or bacteria leads to the formation of antibodies to ward off the infection caused by them. Your body restores these fighter antibodies when you recover to protect you against another infection. This is how Brazil probably controlled the Zika virus. Over 60 per cent of its population attained immunity against this pathogen two years after the epidemic.


This is another way to build mass resistance against a disease. Vaccines expose your body to a virus or bacterium without making you sick but your immune cells still make antibodies against them. So, when these pathogens sneak into your body for the next time, you are ready to fight them off.


The intention behind implementing the herd immunity strategy in India is to bring down the negative economic outcomes of the lockdown. Experts are of the opinion that shutting businesses may lead to worse outcomes (like starvation and suicides) than the deaths caused by in the process of attaining herd immunity. This strategy may work if the majority of India's population can be vaccinated. Once immunized against the novel coronavirus, people are less likely to contract or transmit the virus. Healthy adults, teens and older children need to be immunized to provide herd immunity for people to people who can't be vaccinated or are too ill to develop natural immune to it.


As already mentioned, the herd immunity strategy may blow up the mortality rate of COVID-19. It may also make many healthy, young adults sick, overburdening the weak health care system of India. A lot is unexplored about the novel coronavirus. "It is not yet known why 80 per cent of COVID-19 patients suffer only mild symptoms and recover whereas the others develop serious infections. If the general public is exposed to a virus like this, then it might affect the aged and infants who have a weak immune system. Even those who are physically healthy have the risk of becoming seriously ill with the infection if the desired immunity doesn't develop. Such a scenario is likely to cause large-scale deaths and illness," explains Maurya.

The anticipated outcomes of this strategy may also be worse in India, thanks to severe air pollution and high instances of hypertension and diabetes among the general population.

One of the main risk factors of implementing this strategy against the novel coronavirus is that this pathogen is very new, meaning it hasn't affected humans before. So nobody knows much about it, or the way it behaves. As the World Health Organization puts it, we have very limited knowledge about the virus and the way it functions to experiment with high-risk strategies like herd immunity.

"However, the strategy of herd immunity might be an idea worthy attempting in future when an effective vaccine for SARS-Cov2 is available," says Maurya.

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