China tests entire city for virus as WHO slams herd immunity idea

BEIJING (AFP) – China rushed yesterday to test an entire city of nine million within days after a minor coronavirus outbreak, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that letting the pathogen run free to achieve herd immunity was “scientifically and ethically problematic”.

The virus is still spreading rapidly around the world, with well over 37 million infections, and nations that had suppressed their first outbreaks are now struggling with fresh surges – especially in some parts of Europe. In the absence of a vaccine, governments are wary of allowing the virus to spread unchecked, with China launching a sweeping drive to test all residents of Qingdao after a handful of cases were detected on Sunday.

“As of 8am… our city has taken 3.08 million samples for nucleic testing,” the city’s health commission said yesterday, adding that no new positive samples were found. Chinese officials intend to test the entire city – around 9.4 million people – by tomorrow. In scenes contrasting with the fumbled testing efforts of other nations, health workers in protective clothing swiftly set up tents and residents queued deep into Monday night to provide samples.

In opposition to economically painful lockdowns and social distancing, there have been proposals in some countries to let the coronavirus circulate in the population to build up “herd immunity” – where so much of the population has been infected there are insufficient new victims for the virus to jump to.

But the who said such plans were unworkable, and required mass vaccinations to work.

“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday, describing the idea as “scientifically and ethically problematic”.

“Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It’s not an option.”

Further illustrating the challenge, a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal indicated that exposure to the virus may not guarantee future immunity – and the second infection could come with even more severe symptoms.

The pandemic has claimed more than one million lives worldwide, and spurred breakneck efforts to develop vaccines and effective treatments.

Residents line up for the COVID-19 test near the residential area in Qingdao in east China’s Shandong province. PHOTO: AP