The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported this week that over 85% of adults in NI have Covid-19 antibodies, while Dr Patricia Donnelly, head of the Covid-19 NI Vaccination Programme said yesterday that 80% of NI adults have had their first jab - and 60% their second.
Both estimates appear to put NI within reach of herd or community immunity targets given by Chief Scientific Officer Prof Ian Young last week, when he gave a figure of 80-90% at a press conference.
Herd or community immunity is achieved when enough people have immunity to a disease - through infection or vaccination - to indirectly protect those without immunity.
But QUB Professor of Virology Bert Rima said it was much too early to todraw conclusions, especially as new variants transmit more easily.
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“The problem is that we do not know what actually is an immunity level that is preventing transmitting the virus to others,” he said. “So the fact that 85% may have antibodies does not mean that 85% can no longer transmit the virus.”
The Department of Health also said there were too many unknown factors to draw such a conclusion.
It noted that the ONS estimate of 85% was for the adult population, but that population immunity must take into account under 18s also.
It added that antibodies measured in the ONS survey does not directly equate to being immune – but that other factors such as the level and type of of antibodies, and variants in circulation must be considered.
“It is therefore critical to improve vaccine uptake further – everyone who is eligible for vaccination should make sure they take it up as soon as possible. This will help us to achieve the level of population immunity which we need.”
But Dr Geoffrey Todd, an independent respiratory consultant, said there is clearly a high level of immunity - and that it will be necessary to accept a low level of Covid-19, as it can never be eradicated.
“There certainly are a lot of people vaccinated and a lot of people have had Covid,” he said. “There is a high level of immunity there.
“The bottom line is society cannot go on the way it is with all these restrictions, because we are close to as good as we are going to get it. There is never going to be 100% of the population vaccinated and Coronavirus is never going to be eradicated. We are just going to have to deal with it like influenza, which kills people every year.”
He noted that Covid kills less than 1% of people it infects, whereas Smallpox kills 30%, Polio 20% and Plague over 70%.
He also noted that tuberculosis kills 1.5m worldwide every year. “But mortality levels only recently reached this level for Covid-19.” he added.
Yesterday, an additional 198 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported. No further deaths were reported in the 24 hours previous to that. As of Thursday morning, there were 18 Covid-19 positive patients in hospital, none of whom were in intensive care.
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