Last week, the state-of-emergency ended in Hungary. On Friday, after two months, no new coronavirus-related deaths occurred in the country. The main question right now is, without a vaccine, how protected are we against the Covid-19 epidemic as a second wave is expected later this year?
After its introduction in March, the state-of-emergency has now been declared over in Hungary. Although medical preparedness measures have come into effect, restrictions are a lot looser than before. Yet last Friday was the first time in two months that Hungary did not see new coronavirus-related deaths, while the number of active cases is slowly declining. Despite all the reassuring information, the government and many experts are preparing for a possible second wave of the novel coronavirus.
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Without a vaccine or any kind of reliable medical treatment, the only way people can become protected from the epidemic is through herd immunity.
From the United Kingdom to Sweden, it has been a much-debated subject. The basic concept is rather simple: once enough people become immune to the novel coronavirus, it cannot spread that easily throughout the population.
Scientists estimate that around 60 to 70 percent of the population should become infected, and will then be immune, in order for the Covid-19 epidemic to disappear without any special measures and not infect the rest of the population.
But has Hungary come anything close to herd immunity? The short answer is no, not by a long shot.
The initial data of ’H-UNCOVER,’ a nationwide representative screening program recently conducted by the four Hungarian medical universities and the Central Statistical Office (KSH), yielded surprising results: the researchers found only two positive cases in the sample, as well as nine patients who had antibodies in their blood, meaning they had already had the disease. The final results did not bring any significant change.
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Talking about the results, Béla Merkely, the head of Semmelweis University and the leader of the screening project, said that according to their estimates, the number of people infected in Hungary is somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000.
This infection rate of 0.6-0.7% is extremely low, and it means in case of a second wave of the epidemic, the citizens of Hungary are not at all protected against the virus.
This practically means the infection rate in the country is so minor it’s almost like the whole population (99.3-99.4 %) would be coming into contact with the virus for the very first time.
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Additionally, researchers have already highlighted that the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the pandemic is constantly mutating. Although former deviations so far have not been significant, it is possible in the future that a mutation will occur to an extent that a prior immunity will no longer mean any kind of protection.
Not to mention the resistance against the virus is somewhat uncertain. Currently, available evidence suggests that immunity indeed develops but it might only be temporary, lasting not much longer than a year.
Of course, it is not just Hungary where the rate of infection doesn’t show any chance for social immunity.
As pointed out by Péter Simon, Director of the Institute of Mathematics at ELTE TTK, the protection required for herd immunity has not been achieved on the basis of any country’s epidemiological model so far.
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The best example for this is probably Sweden, as this was the only country in Europe that chose not to implement a strict lockdown to curb the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Many expected this would allow Sweden to achieve herd immunity without introducing economically and socially crippling measures.
However, in an interview with Swedish Radio, Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist, admitted that immunity rates were low and that it was “difficult to explain why this is so.”
Considering this and the extremely high death toll of more than 5,000 people – ten times the number in Hungary- it is unclear if the decision was the right one; likely only time will tell.
As the infection rate in Hungary is so low that herd immunity is not an option, and the fact that the world does not have any working medical treatment or vaccine against the virus, the only option is to wait and see what happens, and while doing so we continue to implement protective measures like masks and social distancing.
Featured photo by Tamás Sóki/MTI