It’s all about herd immunity. And Diamandis is not alone in this idea.
The cancer specialist has prepared a paper on immunity (and exit strategies from this crisis) that proposes infecting healthy volunteers, aged about 20-40, with this coronavirus — in a controlled setting — so that they will develop immunity to it.
As the paper noted: “In this respect, the trial will be similar in design to a trial of evaluating a new vaccine.”
Like the use of convalescent plasma therapy (which uses the antibodies in recovered COVID-19 patients’ blood to help current patients fight off the disease) the idea of purposeful infection is an old one in medical terms.
Sometimes old ideas work, which is why they stick around.
Still, Diamandis readily agreed his idea is one based on desperation.
“But it will work better than some new ideas, such as ingesting disinfectant,” he joked.
His main concern right now, said the doctor, are recent studies questioning whether a case of COVID-19 actually confers any lasting immunity.
“Are the antibodies protecting against future infection? We are not yet sure. If not, if we have no immunity, the whole world is in danger. But most scientists are saying some kind of immunity is provided.”
The solution we all seek, of course, is a vaccine.
Until that happens, his idea is straightforward: Get volunteers in the lowest risk categories and infect them with COVID-19 in a controlled hospital environment. It’s a calculated risk.
Why? According to Diamandis, it’s likely that 90% of Canadians have had no exposure to the virus. Once we come out of isolation, the virus may resurge.
“And it probably will. It only takes one infected person, and then outbreak, outbreak, outbreak. Isolation is not the ultimate solution. A vaccine is the solution, and we achieve herd immunity through it. So our idea, some say it’s crazy, but in the absence of a vaccine, how can we make as many as possible immune?”
Diamandis believes that once hospitals are ready, immunizing people such as nurses and doctors, drivers and paramedics, cashiers, firefighters, grocery clerks — people on the front lines exposed to large numbers of other people — could begin.
“Make them immune in a controlled environment, not in the street. Most people would rather be infected in a hospital setting under constant monitoring than infected by some passerby. It’s much safer than just getting it in the community.”
The idea can be refined, he added. It’s possible that over the next few months, researchers will isolate various strains of COVID-19, and some will be found to be less aggressive.
“One benign virus somewhere that someone will isolate, and this kind of virus, a small dose, in a controlled environment, may provide immunity with no health issues.”
Is it ethical? It’s as ethical as volunteering to donate a kidney to a relative, he said.
And since he first talked about the idea, he’s heard from several people willing to volunteer to be infected.
“Isolation fatigue will facilitate this,” he said.
Diamandis also knows of 30 young medical professionals who said they would be willing to try the infection route, and to him, that makes sense.
“Imagine a doctor caring for patients. Sooner or later, they will get COVID-19 from a patient. And they are working in amazingly complicated protective medical equipment — it’s exhausting, and they are running out of gear. This is just not sustainable in the long run.”
Other scientists besides Dr. Diamandis have proposed similar ideas about herd immunity. He’s already seen predictions that controlled infection strategies “could prevent 60% of deaths from random infection.”
That’s a number that might convince a lot of people.