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A 25-year-old man from Nevada is the first American to be confirmed to have caught COVID-1

9 twice, and his second infection is worse than the first.

USA TODAY

The idea that the public could infect its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic is “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence,” 80 researchers said in a letter to the Lancet on Wednesday.

They strongly condemned the White House’s idea of ​​achieving “herd immunity” against the virus that causes the disease, leaving healthy people at low risk of serious illness to become infected.

A community is considered to have herd immunity when enough people have built up protection against the pathogen, either through a natural infection or a vaccine. For highly contagious viruses such as measles, about 90% of the population must be protected to prevent transmission.

No one knows exactly how many people need to be protected to stop the spread of COVID-19, but estimates range from 50-70% of the population. Current estimates estimate this percentage, based on those that have been infected in the United States, at about 10%.

The United States now reports more than 7.8 million cases and more than 216,000 deaths, according to John Hopkins. Five countries had a record number of deaths in one week, and 12 states set records for new deaths in one week, according to the USA TODAY analysis.

A memorandum published on October 4, called the Barrington Grand Declaration, called on the world to see herd immunity against COVID-19 as a way to protect the vulnerable, while allowing economies to thrive.

The declaration came from a meeting organized by the American Institute for Economic Research, which seeks freedom. His website says he has more than 9,000 signatures, although most names are not public.

“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of achieving herd immunity is to allow those at minimal risk of death to live a normal life in order to build immunity against the virus through natural infection, while at the same time better protect those at highest risk, “the statement said.

Speaking to reporters Monday, a senior administration official said the president had long supported the idea. “The plan has been supporting the president’s policy for months,” he said.

But the idea leaves most epidemiologists both terrified and skeptical.

“It’s just ridiculous,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Everything they say (in the declaration) is either misinformation or outright lies.” she said.

The president of the American Society of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Thomas File, denounced the declaration on Wednesday, saying it was “released without data and evidence.”

This is not the way to end the pandemic

Herd immunity cannot work for several reasons, Maldonado said. First, no one still knows how long someone who has spent COVID-19 remains immune.

“We know that the natural history of coronavirus infections is that people can reinfect themselves over and over again,” she said. In a recent, well-documented case, a 25-year-old man from Nevada was infected in late March and was re-diagnosed five weeks after recovery with a slightly different version of the virus.

The idea that it is even possible to isolate high-risk people is also absurd, she said.

“Over 40% of the US population has some risk. I don’t know how you will keep 40% of the population away from the other 60%, “she said.

Finally, while younger people are at “minimal risk of death,” as the declaration puts it, this is by no means a zero chance.

Attempting to achieve herd immunity would result in much higher mortality than the United States is already experiencing, which is why the concept is not being seriously discussed in the scientific community, said George Rutherford, a specialist in infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.

“What we’re talking about here is a disease that you probably have to get somewhere over 60% of people with permanent, not temporary, immunity,” he said. “It just can’t be achieved without a much higher mortality rate than we’ve had so far.”

Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Massachusetts Institute of Technology college last month that it was unclear what percentage of the population would need to be infected to ensure the herd’s immunity to COVID-19. , although it is expected to be between 50% and 75% of the public.

“We’re not close yet,” he said. “If 200,000 people have already died and you want to let things get herd immunity, you will get a lot of suffering and a lot of deaths. If we get herd immunity, let’s get it with a vaccine, not let everyone get infected. “

The United States already accounts for about 4% of the world’s population, but has suffered 20% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

In addition to those killed by COVID-19, the diseasealso leaves a lot of people withlong-term health effects that are not yet fully understood.

Even heavily infected areas are seeing an increase

If high levels of infection mean fewer people will get sick, then New York will see low levels of COVID-19 now. That’s not what’s happening, said Stephen Kisler, a research fellow in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard School of Public Health TH Chan.

“It’s crystal clear that there are still enough vulnerable people in the population, even in most of New York, to sustain outbreaks,” he said. “What we are seeing is a huge difference in people’s reactions to the pandemic and the precautions people are taking.”

People in New York are now socially distancing themselves, wearing masks and taking other precautions, he said.

By definition, the moment the herd immunity is reached, the infections should go away on their own. But even in the hardest-hit areas of New York, where it is estimated that somewhere between a quarter and a third of residents were infected in the spring, infection rates are now rising.

“This is the only thing you need to know that herd immunity has not been reached,” said William Hanaj, an epidemiologist at Harvard.

There is a better way

Critics say that instead of pushing for herd immunity, the Trump administration should promote public health measures that are known to be both safe and effective: wearing masks, washing hands, avoiding large groups, maintaining social distancing and providing easily accessible tests and contact tracking.

The Lancet’s letter, called the “John Snow Memorandum,” notes that countries that have had a strong public health response to the virus, including Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand, are effectively controlling the transmission.

“We cannot afford a distraction that undermines the effective response,” said the 80 signatories, who make up the Who’s Who in the world of epidemiological, infectious and vaccine diseases. They invited others to sign.

Dr. John Snow was a Victorian physician considered the father of epidemiology. He is known to have traced the source of the London cholera epidemic to a contaminated water well in 1854. He removed the pump handle so that no one could get water from the well – a controversial move at the time – and the epidemic ended.

On Monday, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Gebreesus, described the idea of ​​a society trying to defend itself through herd immunity, not just unscientific, but unacceptable.

“This is not a choice between releasing the virus and stopping our societies,” he said.

Herd immunity, Gebreesus said, is only possible through vaccination, which safely protects enough of the population to prevent the virus from spreading. Leaving the virus to circulate uncontrolled would mean unnecessary infections, suffering and death.

Stopping COVID-19 does not require countries to stop, but to implement simple and inexpensive public health tools, he said.

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy to respond to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” Gebreesus said. “Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to be released for free is simply unethical.”

Karen Weintraub also contributed to this report.

Contact Elizabeth Wise at eweise@usatoday.com.

Patient health and safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Health Ethics, Innovation and Competition. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial data.

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