Certified Coronavirus Immunity as a Resource and Strategy to Cope with Pandemic Costs
Research & Advisory / 24 March 2020
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Professor of Philosophy
Rainer Hegselmann is a Professor of Philosophy at Frankfurt School, where he teaches primarily within the Bachelor in Management, Philosophy & Economics (BSc) programme. His primary focus centres on computational social epistemology and agent-based modelling.

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A pandemic is not only a biological event and a public health disaster, but it also generates impacts that are worth understanding from economic, societal, historical, and cultural perspectives. In this contribution, we argue that as the disease spreads, we are able to harness a valuable key resource: people who have immunity to coronavirus. This vital resource must be effectively employed, it must be certified, it must be searched for, it must be found, and it may even be actively produced. We discuss why this needs to be done and how this can be achieved. Our arguments not only apply to the current pandemic but also to any future rapidly spreading, infectious disease epidemics. In addition, we argue for high awareness of a major secondary, nonbiological crisis arising from the side effects of societal and economic reactions to actual or imagined health risks. There is a risk that the impacts of the secondary crisis could easily outweigh that of the biological event from a societal perspective.

Coronavirus Immunity as a Growing Resource

It seems generally accepted that in most cases the course of the COVID-19 disease is mild, often resulting in no or few symptoms (asymptomatic cases). An estimated 80% of known COVID-19 cases are currently classified as mild, and the number of unreported cases is supposed to be high. The probability of full recovery is high for many people, especially for younger people and those without previous illnesses. Those who have survived the disease are, according to current knowledge, largely immune. The probability of contracting exactly the same virus a second time within a few years and passing the disease on is small compared to a first occurrence of the illness. Peter Doherty – recipient of the Nobel Prize for discovering how the immune system identifies cells that have been infected by a virus – recently argued that reports of individuals contracting COVID-19 twice were unlikely to be correct. Furthermore, he suggested that even if it was a reinfection, prior infection would give an individual a degree of immunity, allowing them to recover very quickly. In addition, the coronavirus causing COVID-19 has not rapidly mutated so far, which could indicate that immunity confers long-term protection.

There are now potentially millions of people who have been infected with the coronavirus and who are now immune. Their immunity makes each of them individually a valuable resource in the fight against the virus, and such resources multiply as the number of people infected increases. Antibodies from immune people might even be used to produce blood serum as a potential treatment. Moreover, from a societal perspective, the larger the stock of people with immunity grows, the lower becomes the risk of infection for the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. As the number of immune people grows, restrictions on all but the most vulnerable can gradually be relaxed. Those who are already immune can go back to their economic and social activity immediately and may even provide active support to the health care system. Their engagement and contribution to society and the economy may reduce both the risk of overburdening the health care system and the potential for economic and social breakdown which might be caused by the reactions and measures set by decision makers against the virus. The resource of immune people is already much greater than we know: All those who have been infected with the virus are immune, but many whose cases were asymptomatic may not even have realized that they had the disease. Consequently, they have never been tested.

Thus, the vital resource of immune people must be employed effectively, it must be certified, it must be searched for, it must be found, and it may be even be actively produced. Taking a resource perspective on epidemics allows the problem to be viewed through the lens of other standard allocation and distribution problems. This means that economists and other social scientists, well trained in handling such problems, should and will be able to provide useful solutions to cope with epidemic diseases and mass-infection outbreaks.

You can read the full paper here.