Herd Immunity Finds Receptive Audience in White House and Florida

A trio of epidemiologists from Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Oxford have joined the president's new coronavirus medical advisor, Scott Atlas, in promoting an alternative approach to dealing with coronavirus infections.

October 18, 2020, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Coronavirus

Alex Gakos / Shutterstock

There are two routes to achieving herd immunity where most of the population is protected from an infectious disease, be it COVID-19 or the measles: vaccine and infection. This post is about the latter.

"Maverick scientists who call for allowing the coronavirus to spread freely at 'natural' rates among healthy young people while keeping most aspects of the economy up and running have found an audience inside the White House and at least one state capitol," reports Joel Achenbach, who covers science and politics for The Washington Post.

The scientists met last week [Oct. 05] with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who has emerged as an influential adviser to President Trump on the pandemic.

The three scientists pushing the strategy, which they call Focused Protection, have distinguished academic appointments. Martin Kulldorff is an epidemiologist at Harvard University. Sunetra Gupta is an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. Jay Bhattacharya is a physician and epidemiologist at Stanford Medical School.

A senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing call Monday [Oct. 12] that the proposed strategy — which has been denounced by other infectious-disease experts and called “fringe” and “dangerous” by National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins — supports what has been Trump’s policy for months.

Political rallies

That policy is evident in the political rallies that President Trump resumed holding less than a week after returning to the White House after having spent three nights at Walter Reed National Military Hospital where he was treated for COVID-19 with experimental drugs not available for other patients suffering from the coronavirus that has killed at least 216,000 Americans.

"At the rally held Monday night in Florida, attendees stood shoulder to shoulder," wrote Nicholas Florko for STAT on Oct. 13. "The lack of social distancing protocols stands in start contrast to his challenger, Joe Biden, who typically requires attendees to sit in their own 'bubbles' far away from other attendees."

Focused Protection

Bhattacharya, Gupta, and Kulldorf "have codified their argument in the form of a document posted online that called itself the Great Barrington Declaration, named after the town in Massachusetts where it was unveiled on Oct. 4 in a ceremony at a libertarian think tank," adds Achenbach. 

The authors argue that their approach would decrease the undesirable public health effects of restrictions and closures, which disproportionately affect lower-income people. The declaration does not mention wearing masks, engaging in social distancing, avoiding crowds and indoor environments, or any of the other recommendations pushed by most government and scientific experts.

The declaration, which has 35 signatures on the homepage, describes their approach:

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold.

By following this approach, President Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. (the latter signed an executive order last month lifting all remaining statewide coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses including bars and restaurants) can dispense with the five public health measures, with the exception of hand hygiene, that public health experts like Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have been urging Americans to practice to mitigate community spread of the virus that has infected almost 8 million Americans since February.

Herd immunity

"Many experts say 'herd immunity' — the point at which a disease stops spreading because nearly everyone in a population has contracted it — is still very far off," wites Sheryl Gay Stolberg for The New York Times in her report on the White House call on Oct. 12 that discussed the Great Barrington Declaration. 

Leading experts have concluded, using different scientific methods, that about 85 to 90 percent of the American population is still susceptible to the coronavirus.

Pushback

William Haseltine, chair and president of ACCESS Health International and a former professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, told CNN that "herd immunity (for COVID-19 achieved by natural infection) is another word for mass murder." He added, “we are looking at two to six million Americans dead – not just this year but every year.” 

"An international group of scientists has written a response to a push for a 'herd immunity' approach to managing the pandemic, which would involve letting the virus spread," writes CIRAP news editor, Lisa Schnirring.

The WHO last week denounced the herd approach—a term used for vaccines—as "scientifically and ethically problematic," because it could greatly boost deaths and expose more people to a virus that may have long-term health consequences...

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has denounced the document, and pushback gained more steam today with the publication in The Lancet of the John Snow Memorandum, which includes scientific references and has now been signed by more than 2,000 scientists, researchers, and health professionals.

John Snow is considered the father of epidemiology for his discovery of the cause of a cholera epidemic in London in 1854, and then ending it by removing a water pump handle to a contaminated well. See related post below to see how his work contributed to urban growth.

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Angela Fritz who writes The Washington Post Coronavirus Updates newsletter.

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