Country’s leading epidemiologist makes U-turn on strategy of herd immunity

Roman Prymula, photo: ČTK/Michal Krumphanzl

The key figure in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic in the Czech Republic, Deputy Health Minister Roman Prymula, has made a surprising U-turn in favour of herd immunity as a means of beating the virus. He also indicated that life in the Czech Republic could return to normal sooner than anticipated.

Roman Prymula, photo: ČTK/Michal Krumphanzl
The widely respected epidemiology expert Roman Prymula has led the government’s efforts in tackling the coronavirus crisis, first as the head of the Central Crisis Staff and now as chief supervisor of the Smart Quarantine plan being implemented in South Moravia.

From the outset he criticized the UK’s strategy of letting the disease run its course on the grounds that it is essential to phase-out the epidemic in order to prevent an overload of the health system which would inevitably result in a lot of deaths.

For the time being, it seems that his strategy has been working and the Czech Republic has been successful in at least partly controlling the spread of the disease. The country has come to a point where members of the Central Crisis Staff are arguing about how soon and how much the government can start easing the imposed restrictions without losing the progress made in the battle against the virus.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who is feeling pressure for the economy to be revved up again, was seen taking a slightly more benevolent stand, Interior Minister Jan Hamáček who now heads the Central Crisis Staff is more cautious. It seemed that the country’s leading epidemiology expert Roman Prymula would be inclined to support a policy of continued restraint.

However the man whose opinions have been decisive in forming the government’s coronavirus strategy, has now publicly stated that the way forward might be through achieving herd immunity while continuing to protect the vulnerable groups of the population. In an interview for DVTV, Mr. Prymula admitted frankly that he had “changed his mind” about herd immunity saying that while ill and elderly people should continue to be protected, a large section of the healthy population should go through the disease or be exposed to it.

He said he had arrived at this conclusion after it became clear that China had provided incorrect data on the number of people infected with COVID 19 there and it was becoming evident that the country had not really beaten the disease through restrictive measures.

Photo: ČTK/David Taneček
He said experts in Italy believe that the number of infected is much higher than official data suggest, possibly as many as 10 million people which means that the death rate is not 15 but 2 to 3 percent.

Mr. Prymula said that if there was an effective drug on the horizon he would likely hold his course on tough restrictions, but the country could not remain paralyzed for two or three months. So under the present circumstances he was in favour of a gradual return to normal which would enable a controlled spread of the disease and the gradual building of herd immunity. Some shops would re-open this week, children could return to school in mid-May, wearing face masks, and some cross-border travel could be allowed soon, he said.

The interview has caused some consternation among the members of the Central Crisis Staff. Prime Minister Babiš said he strongly disagreed with the idea of allowing a controlled spread of the disease, saying the Czech Republic would stick to its strategy of prevention via the smart quarantine plan. Interior Minister Jan Hamáček said M.r Prymula’s words indicated a radical change in strategy which should first be debated by experts.