The Prospects Of China’s Herd Immunity – Analysis


By He Jun*

The discourse on “herd immunity” in the context of China’s COVID-19 situation is a sensitive matter. “Herd immunity” is originally a scientific concept, but when it comes to public health policy, it came to link to political issues, and that is when things become complicated. With this in mind, here we clarify that this article discusses the issue of “herd immunity” from an independent and objective scientific perspective, and does not refer to it here as China’s COVID-19 policy.

Herd immunity, sometimes known as group immunity, refers to a sufficient percentage of a population, either human or animal that has become immune to the infection of a contagious disease. A high level of herd immunity indicates a higher level of the population that has a certain resistance to infection. The possibility of the spread of an epidemic depends not only on the number of individuals in the population with immunity but also on the frequency of contact between individuals in the said population. It is generally believed that if 70%-80% of the individuals in the population possess immunity, large-scale outbreaks of the epidemic will not occur.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China at the end of 2019, there have been huge differences in the international community on how to prevent and control the epidemic that soon evolved to become a pandemic. China has adopted strict control measures like lockdowns in this regard. Back in 2020, when the novel coronavirus was still the original or the Delta variants, the absence of vaccines and effective medications, such measures were relatively successful in containing the first waves of the outbreaks. Viewed objectively, China did achieve remarkable results in its battle against COVID-19 in 2020.

At the same time, a few Scandinavian countries like Sweden adopted the “herd immunity” approach and were ridiculed by the world. At one point in 2020, Sweden became one of the countries in the European Union worst affected by the pandemic. This was to the extent that Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden, publicly apologized to the Swedish people, acknowledging that the situation in the country had gotten out of control. However, judging from the results in the past three years, as of June 19, 2022, among the 31 developed Western countries analyzed by the OECD, Sweden has the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate. Comparing Sweden and Chile, it can be seen that the two countries adopted completely different models. Chile implemented strict lockdowns and carried out the most “successful” vaccination, but the final result is that its COVID-19 death tolls are almost 10 times that of Sweden.

Another country that has adopted a herd immunity strategy is North Korea. According to a CNN report on May 22, 2022, North Korea claimed that its COVID-19 outbreaks were slowing down, with the number of new “fever cases” falling below 200,000 per day. According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) at the time, in the week from the end of April to May 21, North Korea reported more than 200,000 “fever cases” every day, with more than 2.5 million infections and 67 deaths. Based on the above data, 10% of the population in North Korea was infected at that time, and the fatality rate was 0.27 per 10,000. For North Korea which has few medical resources and almost no vaccination, large-scale outbreaks, and hence “herd immunity” were inevitable. Fortunately for the country, it eventually got out of such a predicament

In the past three years, China has chosen a path different from other countries, which is imposing strict control measures. Looking back now, this enabled it to achieve phased success in 2020. Yet, with the advent of the Omicron variant, China still insisted on such strict policies, and hence it had to pay a huge economic and social price. When the Delta variant was raging, many countries except for China paid a huge price in their lives, but in the era of Omicron, they gained a relatively large initiative to battle the outbreaks.

Starting from mid-November 2022, as China gradually relaxes its measures, the country’s COVID-19 control has entered a period of “adjustment and transition”. The latest development is that it will end quarantine on international flights from January 8, 2023, and gradually relax outbound travel. During this process, the number of people infected with the Omicron variant in the country has increased significantly, and there was a large number of deaths among elderly people with comorbidities in large cities.

How then, does China fare now? On December 21, 2022, it was rumored on the internet that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported on the outbreaks across the country at an internal meeting: On December 20, 2022, the estimated number of new infections nationwide was 36.9964 million, and the rate of new infections in a single day was 2.62%. From December 1 to 20, 2022, the cumulative number of infected people was estimated to be 248 million; the cumulative infection rate of the population reached 17.56%. So far, the number of infected people in China is huge. According to incomplete statistics, in many big cities, the infection rate has exceeded 60% or even higher. These changes show that the “dynamic zeroing” policy has become an unattainable goal in the face of the super-infectious Omicron variant.

It should be noted that on the issue of herd immunity, China is only a latecomer, but the path it is taking is the same one that other countries have already traversed. Now that China has adjusted its COVID-19 policy, if it only explains such a policy but not the current situation of the country, then China will be ostracized by some countries, just as ANBOUND predicted in the past. To break this situation, it is necessary to explain herd immunity positively now, instead of avoiding it. We suggest that Chinese academicians and experts, including those involved in the prevention and control of the pandemic, need to discuss more the issue of herd immunity and create a suitable environment for the public opinion so that the world can understand what China is facing.

Final analysis conclusion:

With large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19, China is facing the real problem of herd immunity and could soon achieve it based on the current trend. In the face of the recent ostracization and special restrictions imposed on China by other countries in the world, the issue of herd immunity needs to be discussed and explained positively, so as to create an environment and conditions for China to truly integrate with the post-pandemic world

*He Jun is a researcher at ANBOUND


Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *