30 April 2020 Posted By : Raisa Patel

Canada's top doctor warns against relying on herd immunity to reopen economy

Canada's top doctor says there isn't enough evidence to back herd immunity as a way to reopen society, as Quebec's premier is considering the approach to restart his province's economy.

"The idea of ... generating natural immunity is actually not something that should be undertaken," Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Saturday, urging people to be "extremely cautious" about the concept.

Herd immunity is conferred when enough people in a given population have been infected with a virus, marking them immune to reinfection and slowing down the rate at which the virus spreads on its own. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) published a brief Friday stating that there is "currently no evidence" that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies would be protected from a second infection, but clarified Saturday that most people infected would end up with "some level of protection."

Tam's comments come as Quebec Premier François Legault expressed interest in herd immunity this week as a means to reopen businesses and allow children to return to school.

"The idea is to gradually — and that's the important word — to gradually let people go out, let children go out," he said Thursday, adding that those under 60 years of age might be candidates for developing immunity.

Tam rejected the suggestion that in the absence of a vaccine, some members of Canada's population could offer protection to society's most vulnerable.

"Even a young person might get severely sick or get into the ICU, so it's not a concept that should be supported," she said. 

In response to Tam's remarks, Premier Legault's office said the province plans to forge ahead with easing lockdown restrictions, but only with the approval of Quebec's public health department.

'More caution'

Legault is not alone in searching for solutions to reopen his province's economy, as nationwide shutdowns pass the one-month mark.

On Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada's premiers agreed to work on a joint set of national guidelines that would lay out how to carry out the process.

The prime minister said Saturday that those plans do not rely on using immunity as an interim form of protection.

"In the approach that we're taking very carefully around the provinces and across the country on looking at reopening, I don't believe that there are any plans that hinge on certain people or individuals being immune or having immunity to COVID-19," Trudeau said. 

The federal government has committed millions of dollars toward a new COVID-19 immunity task force focused on researching immunity testing and developing a vaccine — something Tam said is still in its early stages.  

"Until we have those answers, we need to... err on the side of more caution," Trudeau said.

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