The Netherlands Tried Coronavirus Herd Immunity, Is It Working?

The arrival of the Wuhan Virus has minted a low of new disease experts. I'm not one of them. I leave it to wiser people to excitedly post charts of curves on Twitter while claiming that they're clear evidence that the virus is a big deal or will kill all of us by next week.

I do occasionally like to ask questions. This is one of those times.

In the Netherlands growth in transmissions of the virus have slowed significantly.

Giving evidence in front of the Dutch Parliament, Jaap van Dissel, head of the Netherlands National Institute of Health, said: “The exponential growth of the outbreak has in all probability been brought to a halt,” with the infection only being passed on at a rate of one infected person to one other person.

If proven, this would be a significant achievement. In some countries, the average spread from one infected person has been to as many as five or more people. In the U.S., the state of New York had 5,146 new cases confirmed on Wednesday, and more than 30,000 have tested positive.

The Netherlands was controversial because of its approach.

The Big Bazar in Winterswijk is, as usual, full of "Big Deals!" despite the coronavirus. Plastic footballs, clothespins for hanging laundry, flower pots and various other things are for sale at the store in the Dutch border town. There’s a stand with jackets in front of the clothing shop next door and the drug store Kruidvat across the street has a special offer on creme. People seem relaxed as they stroll through the pedestrian zone and there's not a face mask to be seen. If you visited Winterswijk last Saturday, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the pandemic doesn’t even exist here. But just 10 kilometers away, in the town of Vreden on the German side of the border, almost all the stores have been closed for several days....

The Hesselink family, a couple with two of their grown up children, are standing in the pedestrian zone eating chicken nuggets. The father says he’s annoyed that they drove for an hour to Winterswijk just to go to the market, only to find it closed. "But now we’re making the best of it.” The four went for a stroll and they have a number of shopping bags to prove it. When asked if they’re afraid of contracting the virus, the mother says: "No. Sooner or later, everybody’s going to get it anyway.”

It's an attitude that is widespread in the Netherlands. The country has thus far been much less strict in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic than many other countries. There are no curfews in place like the ones in France and Spain and no contact bans as comprehensive as those in Germany. Schools and restaurants have had to close, but most shops are still permitted to open.

A week ago Monday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte made headlines around Europe when the economically liberal politician said: "The reality is that in the near future, a large part of the Dutch population will be infected with the virus.” He then said: "We can slow down the spread of the virus while at the same time building herd immunity in a controlled way.”

Rutte’s government has since been tightening the reins. On Monday evening, the government expanded its restrictions on public gatherings. Among other steps, it now gives municipalities the possibility to prohibit the formation of groups of more than three persons from different households in places like playgrounds, beaches or parks and to impose fines if those rules are violated. Hair salons and cosmetics and nails studios have also been forced to close for the next two weeks. But most retail operations are allowed to remain open as long as they can ensure that customers are keeping enough distance from each other. Children from different households may also continue to play with each other. And NRC Handelsblad has reported that weekly farmer’s markets are also exempted from the bans on gatherings. Rutte has announced that if these measures don’t work that the government will extend the lockdown to other aspects of public life.

And it may ultimately have no choice. On Thursday, the number of cases topped 7,000 for the country. Fully 1,019 of them were new ones.

So it's a bit of an open question. Different countries are trying different things. As are different states. I don't claim to know the right answer, but if the Dutch experiment does succeed, it will be quite important.