After months battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of “herd immunity” is back in the news.
This has been stoked by reports about the White House’s new pandemic advisor, Scott Altas, who has argued in favor of ending social isolation measures and simply allowing healthy people to get infected. The idea is that the virus wouldn’t spread as quickly once enough people became immune. But trying to reach herd immunity without a vaccine would be a disastrous pandemic response strategy.
As mathematics and computer science professors, we think it is important to understand what herd immunity actually is, when it’s a viable strategy and why, without a vaccine, it cannot reduce deaths and illnesses from the current pandemic.
What is herd immunity?
Epidemiologists define the herd immunity threshold for a given virus as the percentage of the population that must be immune to ensure that its introduction will not cause an outbreak. If enough people are immune, an infected person will likely come into contact only with people who are already immune rather than spreading the virus to someone who is susceptible.
Herd immunity is usually discussed in the context of vaccination. For example, if 90% of the population (the herd) has received a chickenpox vaccine, the remaining 10% (often including people who cannot become vaccinated, like babies and the immunocompromised) will be protected from the introduction of a single person with chickenpox.
But herd immunity from SARS-CoV-2 is different in several ways:
1) We do not have a vaccine. As biologist Carl Bergstrom and biostatistician Natalie Dean pointed out in a New York Times op-ed in May, without a widely available vaccine, most of the population – 60%-85% by some estimates – must become infected to reach herd immunity, and the virus’s high mortality rate means millions would die.
2) The virus is not currently contained. If herd immunity is reached during an ongoing pandemic, the high number of infected people will continue to spread the virus and ultimately many more people than the herd immunity threshold will become infected – likely over 90% of the population.
3) The people most vulnerable are not evenly spread across the population. Groups that have not been mixing with the “herd” will remain vulnerable even after the herd immunity threshold is reached. Furthermore, it is impossible to fully isolate vulnerable populations while everyone else goes back to normal.
Reaching herd immunity without a vaccine is costly
For a given virus, any person is either susceptible to being infected, currently infected or immune from being infected. If a vaccine is available, a susceptible person can become immune without ever becoming infected.
Without a vaccine, the only route to immunity is through infection. And unlike with chickenpox, many people infected with SARS-CoV-2 die from it.
By Sept. 1, more than 184,000 people in the U.S. had died from COVID-19. This figure includes children and others in low-risk groups, and the disease can have lingering health consequences for those who survive. Moreover, scientists don’t yet know the extent to which people who recover are immune from future infections.
A vaccine is the only way to move directly from susceptibility to immunity, bypassing the pain from becoming infected and possibly dying.
Herd immunity reached during a pandemic doesn’t stop the spread
An ongoing pandemic doesn’t stop as soon as the herd immunity threshold is reached. In contrast to the scenario of a single person with chickenpox entering a largely immune population, many people are infected at any given time during an ongoing pandemic.
When the herd immunity threshold is reached during a pandemic, the number of new infections per day will decline, but the substantial infectious population at that point will continue to spread the virus. As Bergstrom and Dean noted, “A runaway train doesn’t stop the instant the track begins to slope uphill, and a rapidly spreading virus doesn’t stop right when herd immunity is attained.”
If the virus is unchecked, the final percentage of people infected will far overshoot the herd immunity threshold, affecting as many as 90% of the population in the case of SARS-CoV-2.
Proactive mitigation strategies like social distancing and wearing masks flatten the curve by reducing the rate that active infections generate new cases. This delays the point at which herd immunity is reached and also reduces casualties, which should be the goal of any response strategy.
Herd immunity does not protect the vulnerable
People who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, such as people over 65, have been urged to stay inside to avoid exposure. But full isolation in our society is impossible, so the greater the number of active cases, the greater the risk to these vulnerable people.
Even if the herd immunity threshold is reached by the population at large, a single infected person coming in contact with a vulnerable community can cause an outbreak. The coronavirus has devastated nursing homes, which will remain vulnerable until vaccines are available.
How to respond to a pandemic without a vaccine
Without a vaccine, we should not think of herd immunity as a light at the end of the tunnel. Getting there would result in many more needless deaths in the United States and would not protect the most vulnerable.
For now, testing and contact tracing, wearing masks, and social distancing remain the best ways to lessen the destruction of COVID-19 by flattening the curve to buy time to develop treatments and vaccines.
This article has been updated with details about the White House’s new pandemic advisor.
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This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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Roku and NBCUniversal Reach Deal for Peacock, Renew Agreement for NBC TV Apps
Peacock will finally be taking flight on Roku devices, after months of wrangling — and NBCUniversal’s TV apps will not be going dark on Roku after all.
Roku and NBCU reached a deal Friday afternoon that will provide access to the Peacock app on the streaming platform’s players and Roku-enabled TVs. In addition, the companies renewed their agreement to keep 46 NBCU broadcast and cable apps on Roku, after the media company had threatened to pull them this weekend over the dispute over Peacock.
Under the companies’ expanded pact, NBC content will be added to the free, ad-supported Roku Channel. Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. But there is money changing hands, in the form of NBCU providing some kind of value to Roku: The platform company said it has a deal for “a meaningful partnership around advertising.”
Peacock will be coming to the Roku Channel Store within a few weeks, pending technical integration work between the two companies.
Roku said in a statement, “We are pleased to have reached an agreement with Comcast that will bring Peacock to Roku customers and maintains access to NBCU’s TV Everywhere apps. We look forward to offering these new options to consumers under an expanded, mutually beneficial relationship between our companies that includes adding NBC content to the Roku Channel and a meaningful partnership around advertising.”
NBCU praised Roku’s “incredible reach” in announcing the deal. “We are pleased Roku recognizes the value in making NBCUniversal’s incredible family of apps and programming, including Peacock, available to all of their users across the country,” an NBCU rep said in an emailed statement. “More than 15 million people signed up for Peacock since its national launch in July and we are thrilled millions more will now be able to access and enjoy Peacock along with other NBCUniversal apps on their favorite Roku devices.”
Each side had accused the other of making unreasonable demands: NBCU wanted Peacock to be distributed on Roku without giving up a share of the advertising inventory on the service. Roku was insisting on getting some kind of compensation.
Peacock launched nationwide July 15, but until now it has been unavailable on Roku as well as Amazon Fire TV. WarnerMedia’s HBO Max remains unavailable on Roku and Fire TV over deal disagreements.
Such distribution standoffs are likely to become more common as Roku and Amazon flex their big installed bases. Roku reported 43 million streaming accounts as of the end of June; Amazon says Fire TV has more than 40 million customers. Prior to Roku’s standoffs over Peacock and WarmerMedia’s HBO Max, the highest-profile case of a similar dispute was when Fox’s TV app was pulled from the platform in January 2020 — before they made peace and the app returned at the 11th hour, one day before the Super Bowl.
Peacock is available in three tiers: Premium Free (with ads) and Peacock Premium, which includes a bigger content selection, available with ads ($4.99/month) and no ads ($9.99/month). In addition, Comcast Xfinity X1 and Flex customers and Cox Contour subscribers have access to Peacock Premium with ads for no extra charge (or the ad-free tier for $5/month).
Black tech organizations grow amid calls for racial justice
Amazon applied science manager Dr. Nashlie Sephus has lived in New York City, Atlanta, Silicon Valley, and Seoul while pursuing her education and work in machine learning. She knows the look of a community that’s thriving from technology and innovation, but she didn’t see that growth happening in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. That’s why last week she concluded an 18-month process by signing contracts to secure 12 acres of land that will be home to the Jackson Tech District.
The Bean Path, a nonprofit organization created by Sephus, will operate a maker and innovation space on the land. There will also be restaurants and residential lofts spread across eight buildings, all located near the historically Black Jackson State University.
The Bean Path’s expansion in Jackson, a city with one of the highest African-American populations per capita of any city in the U.S., is the latest example of a Black tech organization building community amid ongoing conversations about racial injustice. This growth comes as tech companies have publicly committed to diverse hiring practices after years of little to no progress while releasing statements that mention race but demand no action from people who benefit from racism and white supremacy.
Sephus told VentureBeat in an interview earlier this year she hopes the demands for racial justice that inspired the biggest protests in U.S. history will lead hiring managers who work with engineers and scientists to take genuine steps to diversify their teams.
The Bean Path was founded in 2018 to seed technical expertise in Mississippi and do things like advise startups on their technical roadmaps. It aims to include people who haven’t worked in tech or who didn’t go to a prestigious college or attend college. The Bean Path’s in-person events initially focused on Jackson, with office hours held in local libraries. Virtual office hours made necessary by COVID-19 mean The Bean Path now works with people across the U.S. Once the Jackson Tech District opens, the group plans to host co-development sessions and conferences with other organizations. Sephus is also working with a group to open KITTLabs for Black developers in Atlanta this fall.
Sephus came to Amazon in 2018 following the acquisition of Partpic, where she served as CTO. In an interview with VentureBeat earlier this year, Sephus said she’s happy if her accomplishments inspire young professionals to enter the field or apply to Amazon, but she’s looking forward to the day when being a Black female machine learning scientist working at Amazon is not a rarity.
“I’m not proud at all when I say that I am one of the only or very few; it’s literally just a reminder to people who are in charge of these decisions that this is the reality,” she said. “I think that change with these companies and these type of technologies have to be pressured from the outside, as well as from the inside. And so as someone who is on the inside, I know first-hand what it takes to make change — it takes a lot. And so I’m dedicated to keep fighting for what I believe in. Again, I just encourage folks to do the same. I think we’re headed in the right direction, but it’s going to take a lot more stakeholders to come together and hash out some of these issues.”
In June, Sephus joined more than 100 Black tech professionals and 100 allies in signing a public letter released about a week after George Floyd’s death. The letter was published by Black in Computing, a group that maintains “when one of us is traumatized as a result of inequity and racism, all of us are traumatized.” The letter calls the tech industry “oblivious, complicit, or indifferent” to the discrimination Black technologists encounter and calls for a series of actions, like the creation of unbiased working environments that allow people of all backgrounds to prosper.
“We know that the advances of computing are transforming the way we all live, work, and learn. We also know that we cannot ask for equal opportunity for anyone without demanding equal opportunity for everyone. We know that in the same way computing can be used to stack the deck against Black people, it can also be used to stack the deck against anyone,” the letter reads.
Black in Robotics held its first official meeting last Friday to gather ideas from initial members, but the group began to take shape in June after a panel conversation about race and robotics held by Silicon Valley Robotics.
In opening remarks, Georgia Tech professor Dr. Ayanna Howard said that systemic racism in the tech industry is a problem, but as AI and robotics become more common, systematic bias and other negative aspects of technology will impact the rest of the world unless we can change course.
“If we do it right, it means that we leave the world a better place. And I think as a roboticist, this is the reason why I still remain a roboticist, still build my robots and program them and work with people, is because I truly believe that as roboticists we can impact the world and change it,” Howard said.
Maynard Holliday is a co-organizer of Black in Robotics and wrote the group’s mission statement. His credentials include working with robots deployed to help contain radioactive fallout at Chernobyl. A senior engineer at the RAND Corporation, he currently works with federally funded research and development centers for the military. He said he knows from his long experience in the industry that the problem is bias in hiring, not pipeline issues.
“I’ve been working 30+ years in the field and have been the only person of color in almost every situation, whether it be in industry or in my role at the Pentagon in the Obama administration, at national labs,” Holliday told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “I’m at the point of my career where I’m at the end of it and hopefully cruising to retirement, but I want to see the community flourish.”
Black in Robotics is just getting started, but at launch the organization is taking a two-pronged approach. One part of the organization is devoted to building community among Black roboticists through mentorship and outreach to Black people who want to become roboticists, as well as networking at robotics conferences and job or internship listings for college students. The other part of the organization is aimed at companies that want to build more diverse organizations or act as allies to Black roboticists. That area will provide resources, like a directory of Black roboticists and a list of research by Black roboticists for citation by colleagues or for academics to add to a computer science syllabus.
Following the meeting last week, Black in Robotics is currently forming mentorship, engagement, and industry committees with plans to roll out formal programs later this year, Holliday said.
In another development, African AI researchers have written a number of works in recent months about creating AI in the spirit of anticolonialism AI and Ubuntu, the African philosophy of interdependence.
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