While the Trump administration is signaling a willingness to build “herd immunity” by deliberately allowing the coronavirus to spread, major scientific organizations are denouncing a plan they believe would be life-threatening and practically impossible.
This plan, outlined by three scientists in a controversial document called the Great Barrington Declaration, is to protect only “vulnerable” people and let everyone else get infected with COVID-19. The authors discussed the strategy in a meeting with two senior White House officials last week.
This week, the head of the World Health Organization and more than a dozen groups representing thousands of infectious disease and public health experts vigorously pushed back a number of formal denunciations.
“Never in public health history has herd immunity been used as a strategy to respond to an outbreak or even a pandemic. It is scientifically and ethically problematic, “said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday.
And on Wednesday, a group of 80 researchers called the idea “a dangerous mistake unsupported by scientific evidence,” in a letter published in the high-profile medical journal Lancet.
The Great Barrington statement, posted on a website sponsored by a libertarian think tank, argues that the coronavirus is not that dangerous for many people. “Those who are not vulnerable should be able to resume normal life immediately.” Citing “serious concerns about the harmful effects of the current COVID-19 guidelines on physical and mental health,” the letter calls for personal lessons to be resumed, Reopen restaurants and shops; and resume large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events.
So far, the letter has been signed by more than 35,000 self-identified scientists and clinicians – although some signatories such as “Dr. Johnny Bananas ”and“ Professor Cominic Dummings ”were identified as clearly fake. All signatures were later privatized.
The architects of the document are three scientists from Harvard, Stanford and Oxford Universities, some of whom have been telling policymakers for months that the virus is not that deadly. Last week they met with Alex Azar, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Atlas, a Stanford neuroradiologist on the White House’s coronavirus task force.
Both expressed support for the scientists’ views. Afterward, Azar tweeted that they had “heard a strong reinforcement of the Trump administration’s strategy of aggressively protecting the vulnerable while they open schools and the workplace.” And on a phone call called by the White House on Monday, anonymous senior administration officials referred the Great Barrington statement to reporters. “We do not support a plan,” said a Washington Post official. “The plan has been confirming the president’s policy for months.”
The Great Barrington Declaration put public interest in a pandemic for months that the federal government has not controlled. More than 216,000 Americans have died. Life has changed in almost every way: jobs have been lost on a large scale, gatherings large and small have been canceled, and businesses, schools and restaurants have closed. Data suggests the pandemic has non-COVID-19 health effects: people are no longer being screened for cancer and treated for stroke, and more adults are experiencing problems related to mental health and substance abuse.
As the world waits for a vaccine, “pandemic fatigue” spreads in the US and elsewhere. In the UK, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, lawmakers are facing public opposition as they attempt a second round of lockdown measures.
However, mainstream science says that giving up protecting healthy people from the virus is not an acceptable solution.
According to recent estimates by the CDC, up to 90% of the US population are still susceptible to the virus. Health experts fear that the uncontrolled spread of the pathogen in healthy people without a vaccine would make many of them sick, hospitalized and kill, not to mention overwhelming the health system. And even if young, healthy people die relatively rarely, they can still transmit the virus to risk groups or join the “long-distance drivers” who suffer debilitating symptoms for months. Survivors are also not guaranteed to become immune forever: no one knows how long immunity will last, and a handful of reinfections have been reported.
These experts also say it would be next to impossible to isolate the millions of “vulnerable” Americans who are older, have pre-existing conditions, or live in multi-generational households. The Great Barrington Declaration suggests separating these groups from the rest of society, but does not include a plan for doing so.
“Promoting the concept of ‘herd immunity’, as set out in a recent document circulated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is inappropriate, irresponsible and ill-informed,” said the leaders of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and America the HIV Medicine Association, each representing more than 12,000 infectious disease experts and 6,000 HIV / AIDS specialists, in a statement Wednesday.
In another joint statement on Wednesday, 14 prominent public health organizations stated that “the proposals in the Great Barrington Declaration are NOT based on science” and that they would “arbitrarily and unnecessarily sacrifice lives”.
“The statement is not a strategy, but a political statement,” wrote groups that included the American Public Health Association, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Security. “It ignores solid public health knowledge. It chases a frustrated population. Instead of selling false hopes that predictably backfire, we need to focus on how to treat this pandemic safely, responsibly and fairly. “
And a group of 80 researchers counter the Great Barrington statement with their own open letter: the John Snow Memorandum, named after the 19th century doctor who tracked down the cause of a cholera outbreak in London and is considered the founder of modern epidemiology.
In the letter, the signatories acknowledged that there had been “widespread demoralization and declining confidence” in the face of persistent restrictions in countries that lack “adequate regulations to deal with the pandemic and its societal impact”.
However, society cannot simply allow the virus to spread freely in large groups of people, argued the letter, which was led by 30 researchers and signed by 50 others in the public health, epidemiology, medicine, health policy and other disciplines.
Measures such as widespread testing and contact tracing need to be implemented “and they need to be backed by financial and social programs that encourage community responses and address the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic,” they wrote. They cited Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand as countries that have shown that transmission can be controlled.
“The evidence is very clear: Controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the community is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive in the months ahead,” they wrote.
“We cannot afford distractions that undermine an effective response. It is important that we act on the evidence urgently. “