On September 7, 2022, Joachim Kuhs, Member of the European Parliament for Germany, declared on Twitter: “Herd immunity (in Germany) has already been reached: The infection control law is not necessary”. This claim turns out to be mostly false.
Kuhs is part of Germany’s far-right opposition party AfD, which works against the government’s infection control law. His party is known to be wary of the government’s approach to COVID-19 measures. Some AfD-members also question the legitimation of the pandemic at large.
On the website of Oxford Academic, herd immunity is defined as follows: “Herd immunity is a particular threshold proportion of immune individuals that should lead to a decline in incidence of infection.”
Taking the term “herd immunity” as a model, there is a simple calculation: Herd immunity = 1- 1/ R0. R0 is the basic reproduction number, i.e. the average number of infected individuals per contact with an infectious individual. Therefore, it can be scientifically checked whether there is a herd immunity persistent in Germany or not.
No absolute protection
On the photo embedded in his tweet, there is a text element saying “Brisante Studie”, “explosive study” in English. However, Joachim Kuhs never gives a link or a quote to the proof in his post. After contacting him via mail, he gives the study on which he seems to base his claim: The study “Interimsanalyse des IMMUNEBRIDGE-Projektes zur Kommunikation von vorläufigen Ergebnissen an das Modellierungsnetz für schwere Infektionskrankheiten” (more than 25,000 participants, which is relatively representative of Germany in the context of virological studies) states that: “95 % of German citizens have antibodies against COVID-19”.
The institution responsible for the study is the Helmholtz Institute in Münster. The study is additionally supported by the German Ministry of Research and Science. The ministry interprets the study in the following way: “This means that the majority of Germans have moderate protection against a difficult course of the disease”. So, protection against infection is not absolute. According to German minister of education and science Bettina Stark-Watzinger: “German states should prepare for stricter regulations, if new variants of the virus evolve.“
The words “herd” and “immunity” never appear in the paper. In addition, the authors claim that even if collective immunity is reached, variants could still break this immunity: It is therefore not stable. They neither seem to consider herd immunity as impaired nor believe that the study declared possible herd immunity.
A Modeling Network worked with the study’s editors. It has published possible scenarios for the continued spread of COVID-19 this winter. The scenario without a new mutation implies that the majority of Germans would have moderate illnesses, but infections would increase again according to the simulation. In the event of a new variant, the number of infections would also increase in Germany.
Prof. Dr. med André Karch is one of the authors of the study. After contacting him, he answered that it cannot be concluded that herd immunity in Germany has been reached. After showing him the claim made by Kuhs, Karch answered briefly that according to the study the claim is not a right conclusion.
Prof. Dr. Ulf Dittmer, director of the virologic institute at the university-clinic of Essen, states: “All smaller and larger studies in Germany suggest a seroprevalence (percentage of a group with antibodies) of more than 95%. According to this, one must actually assume that herd immunity is present in Germany. However, genetic modification of the virus means that the presence of antibodies does not offer complete protection against reinfection. This strongly neutralizes herd immunity. Therefore, herd immunity against SARS-CoV-2 infection does unfortunately not exist. Obviously, however, there is some herd immunity against severe COVID-19 disease in Germany. But this is not absolute!”
The statements of the scientists and experts interviewed lead to the conclusion that Joachim Kuhs’ statement is mostly false. However, one could argue that it would be not completely wrong, as he does not clarify whether he means herd immunity against infection or herd immunity against severe COVID-19 diseases. As Dittmer stated, herd immunity against severe COVID-19 diseases in Germany is existent until a certain level, but not absolute. Even if he would mean this sense of herd immunity, his claim as an absolute would therefore be partially wrong.
Referring to the current law of infection safety, he says that this is not necessary anymore, he seems to refer to the herd immunity against infections. The experts all argue that this is not persistent in Germany and might not be even possible, because of the chance of spontaneous mutations. He does furthermore not specify if he really means the herd immunity against COVID-19. As his party AfD is known for working against the COVID-19 measurements of the government the connection reveals itself to probably every recipient. Kuhs also gave us a study about COVID-19 after asking for his source, which clarifies that he is talking about the herd immunity against COVID-19.
The claim is mostly wrong. Because the infections are still rising, there can be no herd immunity regarding COVID-19 infections in Germany. The experts interviewed agree emphatically on this point.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Christian Neumann and Clémence Madillac
Cross-national fact check by Westfälische Hochschule Gelsenkirchen and EFAP Paris, during an Erasmus exchange at AP University College Antwerp, Belgium
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