Bnei Brak could be Israel’s first ‘herd immunity’ model

Recent criticism of Bnei Brak for high infection numbers might actually come to their benefit, as they will be the first to develop "herd immunity"

Israeli police officers take out ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Israeli police officers take out ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 2, 2020.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Bnei Brak has been the focus of criticism by most of the country, including the Health Ministry, which recently put the city under a full, military-enforced closure.
But according to Dr. Elon Ganor, a medical professional and serial entrepreneur, residents of Bnei Brak may be among the best off in the country. That’s because, he believes, they have “herd immunity” – many residents have likely developed antibodies against COVID-19, which means they should be able to go to school, prayers and work.
“If you checked now the population of Bnei Brak for herd immunity, they would be more than 50% or 60% immuned,” Ganor said, noting that this could be verified by conducting serologic or antibody tests among the population. “The younger generation is probably already immune. If this is true, I would immediately stop the lockup. They can be released.”
What is “herd” or “community” immunity?
This is what happens when so many people in a community become immune to an infectious disease that it stops the disease from spreading. In other words, enough people contract the virus and in time build up a natural immune response to it.
“You should remember that most people don’t develop symptoms” of the novel coronavirus, Ganor said. “So, immunity is happening without the person knowing that he has been infected.”
Dr. Dan Yamin, head of the Laboratory for Epidemic Modeling and Analysis in Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Engineering, said herd immunity, if conducted gradually, is the right approach. Bnei Brak, where 50% of the population is under the age of 16, could be an ideal test case, he said.
Yamin and a team of researchers from Prof. Irad Ben-Gal’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, together with representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry and Israel Air Force technology unit Ofek 324 have been working to establish an exit strategy model for the country. “Let daycare children return to their normal lives,” Yamin said.
Most households that have children under the age of six are unlikely to have elderly people above the age of 60, he said. As such, children can go back to school and infect each other in very mild or asymptomatic ways. Then some of them will infect members of their households – also low-risk people in most cases.
Yamin said a similar scenario can be seen with illnesses, such as RSV or the flu. In these cases, the five- to 19-year-old age group is not at risk and is mostly responsible for transmission.
Moreover, the youngest children tend to be the only age group that comes into contact with all other age groups.
“That’s why it is the key population in spreading respiratory diseases,” he said.
Because with COVID-19 we want to have an even slower transmission than with other respiratory diseases, Yamin recommends starting only with kids under six.
Slowly, their parents will infect their friends and colleagues, and ultimately society at large will have herd immunity to the virus. He said in his model, at its peak, the country would not have more than 5,000 ventilated patients, and Israel’s medical system would not collapse.
Yamin admitted we still don’t know for sure that one develops immunity to COVID-19 and cannot be reinfected with the virus a second time. But with the majority of similar viruses, this is the case, he said.
“If you’re infected and you have recovered, you won’t be reinfected, because of immunological memory,” he said. “And if you are infected again, the symptoms will be less acute the second time.”
For herd immunity to work, Yamin said, the country would have to significantly increase testing, both using the PCR test that is already being use, and using serologic tests that examine an individual’s immunological reaction to exposure.
“That’s the only way we will be able to get an accurate picture of the distribution of the virus in Bnei Brak or in Israel,” Yamin said.
Is herd immunity better than social distancing?
“We won’t be able to isolate ourselves forever,” he said. “At some stage, we will have to resume a regular routine.” Then if we don’t have herd immunity, people will start becoming infected again – until we do have this immunity, he said.
“Effectively, we are delaying the inevitable,” Yamin said. “The public needs to understand that these measures of social distancing mean that we will find ourselves with corona for a longer period,” even for up to three more years.
Ganor said: “By the lockup, they are slowing down herd immunity development. If we don’t let the virus spread quickly through the population, then the population is not getting immuned. And if this is true, every day that we slow it down is an economic crisis that is growing larger and longer.”
Both Yamin and Ganor said older adults and people with preexisting and chronic medical conditions should be isolated and protected while the process runs its course.
“There are only two ways of seeing a plague like this coming to an end: extinction of the virus or herd immunity,” Ganor said. “With this virus, based on its cousin viruses, there will be no extinction. So the only path back to normal life is by letting this herd immunity develop – letting nature do its thing – first in Bnei Brak and then everywhere else.”