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Exposing Yourself To COVID-19 To 'Build Immunity' Won't Work

The idea that you should infect yourself to "get it over with" is totally wrong, according to an epidemiologist.
Social distancing is still the safest way to protect yourself and others from the novel coronavirus.
Bernhard Lang via Getty Images
Social distancing is still the safest way to protect yourself and others from the novel coronavirus.

As tends to happen during anything big and complicated, rumours and opinions about the COVID-19 pandemic are popping up all over the internet.

One of the persistent ones is that we could end the spread of the virus faster if people with healthy immune systems deliberately exposed themselves to the virus. The idea is that healthy people would get sick, recover, and build immunity to fight the virus, helping us get our social lives and our economy back on track — the coronavirus equivalent of a chickenpox party.

Everyone’s desperate to find a way to get things back to normal, and it’s easy to understand that people might run with the statistic that up to 70 per cent of Canadians could get infected to try to make that happen in a controlled way.

But experts say it’s actually a bad and a dangerous idea.

“You are being told in the strongest way in our nation’s history that I know of, to stay home,” Winnipeg-based epidemiologist Cynthia Carr told HuffPost Canada.

By seeking out an infection, even one you think you can control, “you are putting the people you care about at risk,” she said. “Don’t be part of the problem.”

Carr ran through the many reasons deliberate exposure is a bad idea.

We don’t know if you can only get the virus once

The idea of getting sick in order to “get it over with” is predicated on the idea that once you get COVID-19, you’ll never get it again.

But there’s a big problem with that: we don’t actually know if it’s true.

“We absolutely do not know that for sure,” Carr said. “We have no research at all to show that that is the case.”

There’s so much even the world’s top experts don’t yet understand about COVID-19, especially because it’s so new. “Typically, you need at least a year in order to determine your level of immunity,” Carr explained. We only have a few months’ worth of research about the novel coronavirus right now.

In China, several people who had recovered from the virus later tested positive again. Most health experts, including Carr, think that’s likely due to problems with the way tests were administered, but that isn’t something we know for sure.

There are other coronaviruses that you can get more than once

People who get MERS, another respiratory coronavirus that originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012, don’t have lifelong immunity to that virus.

Carr cited a study on MERS that found that the antibodies — the protein that the immune system uses to fight off a virus — of an infectious person were gone in as little as six months after infection. In other words, a person who had recovered from MERS was susceptible to getting it again just six months after the first infection.

“That’s just one study, but it does show that within that virus family, we don’t have a great history of immunity,” Carr said.

There’s a difference between feeling better and knowing you’re immune

We know that many people (including nearly 4,000 in Canada) have recovered from COVID-19: they’ve tested negative after previous positive tests, and are feeling healthy and no longer exhibiting symptoms.

That’s great news. But those people are “clinically cured,” which is only one part of the process.

Being clinically cured is different from being “pathogen cured,” which means the virus has left the body and that person can no longer transmit the disease, Carr explained. Some people who are clinically cured might still carry small amounts of the virus, which could potentially make them feel sick again down the road.

We can’t rule out the possibility that even people who have recovered from the novel coronavirus, and tested negative, could be in that position.

Even people who have recovered may potentially have small traces of the virus in their bodies, which is why social distancing is still such an important measure.
Cole Burston via Getty Images
Even people who have recovered may potentially have small traces of the virus in their bodies, which is why social distancing is still such an important measure.

“It could be that that level of virus is just so low now in your body that the test can’t detect it,” Carr said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not still there.”

Yes, deliberate infection is how we approach chickenpox — but that’s totally different

Most people get chickenpox just once in their lifetime — usually when they’re children. Some parents will intentionally get their kids to hang out with kids who are infected. Whether or not that’s a good idea is up for debate, but it’s important to note that chickenpox is very different from COVID-19.

For one thing, with the chickenpox, “we have years and years and years of data to show us that you have pretty much a lifetime immunity,” Carr said. So it might make sense to “get it over with” by making sure a child gets the chickenpox. With the coronavirus, “there is no data right now to support any of those decisions.”

There was also one reported death from chickenpox in Ontario in 2018, the last year for which there’s data. As of Monday evening, the province has seen 25 deaths from COVID-19 in less than three weeks.

Deliberate infection puts other people at risk

Yes, the idea is that only healthy people would be infected, but it’s hard to guarantee that a healthy person wouldn’t interact with someone with a compromised immune system.

“Think about your mom, your grandma, your sister, your child,” Carr said. “How would you feel if they were the one that got really sick? It’s not worth it.”

And if anything, deliberate infection will make social distancing measures last longer. “You are pushing us away from the goal, which is flattening the curve,” she said. It doesn’t matter if your case isn’t a severe one: it’s still another case, which is what we all want to prevent.

“The government are not going to ease the social distancing sanctions until they see the curve going in the right direction. So you are actually not only putting yourself at risk, you would be continuing to harm the economy and the people who are already teetering on the edge financially.”

We have to remember how little we know

It’s possible that people do build up an immunity to COVID-19 after they recover. Maybe in a year we’ll know for sure. But right now we don’t, and so the safest thing we can do is listen to public health experts, Carr said.

“The only known thing to stop the spread right now is literally to stay isolated, and not to get infected.”

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