While the Trump administration has signaled its readiness to build “herd immunity” by purposefully allowing the spread of the coronavirus, major scientific organizations have rejected a plan that they believe would be life-threatening and virtually impossible.
This plan, set out by three scientists in a controversial document called the “Great Barrington Declaration”, calls only for the protection of “vulnerable” people and allows everyone else to become infected with COVID-19. The authors discussed the strategy at 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 experts on infectious diseases and public health vehemently rejected a series of official accusations.
“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy to respond to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. This is scientifically and ethically problematic, “WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreesus said on Monday.
And on Wednesday, a group of 80 researchers called the idea a “dangerous misconception unsupported by scientific evidence”
The Great Barrington Declaration, published on a website sponsored by a libertarian think tank, said the coronavirus was less dangerous to many people, so “those who are not vulnerable should be able to resume their lives as usual.” Citing “serious concerns about the detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of the prevailing policies of COVID-19”, the letter called for the return of personal teaching, the resumption of restaurants and business, and the resumption of 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 have signed, such as “Dr. Johnny Banani and Professor Cominich Dummings were identified as blatantly fake. Later, all signatures were made private.
The document’s architects are a trio of scientists from Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities, some of whom have been telling politicians for months that the virus is not as deadly. Last week, they met with Alex Hazard, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Atlas, a Stanford neuroradiologist at the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Both expressed support for the scientists’ views. Hazard then tweeted that he heard “a strong strengthening of the Trump administration’s strategy to aggressively protect the vulnerable while opening schools and the workplace.” And on a call convened by the White House on Monday, anonymous senior administration officials cited the Great Barrington Declaration to reporters. “We don’t approve of the plan,” one official said, according to the Washington Post. “The plan has been supporting the president’s policy for months.”
The Great Barrington Declaration sparked months of public interest in a pandemic that the federal government failed to control. More than 216,000 Americans have died. Life has failed in virtually every sense: jobs have been lost en masse, large and small gatherings have been canceled, and businesses, schools and restaurants have been closed. The data show that the pandemic has non-COVID-19 health effects: People are postponing cancer screening and being treated for strokes, and more adults have mental health and substance abuse problems.
While the world expects a vaccine, “pandemic fatigue” is spreading to the United States and elsewhere. In the UK, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, lawmakers are fighting public resistance as they seek a second round of blocking measures.
But the main scientific community says that, in essence, refusing to protect healthy people from the virus is not an acceptable solution.
Up to 90% of the US population remains susceptible to the virus, according to the latest CDC estimates. Health experts worry that leaving the pathogen to spread uncontrollably to healthy people, in the absence of a vaccine, would make them sick, hospitalize and kill many, not to mention overwhelm the health system. And even if young, healthy people die at a relatively slow rate, they can still transmit the virus to at-risk groups or join the “long carriers” that suffer debilitating symptoms for months. It is also not guaranteed that survivors will be immunized forever: No one knows how long immunity lasts and there are several reports of reinfection.
These experts also say it would be nearly impossible to isolate the millions of “vulnerable” Americans who are adults, have living conditions, or live in households for many generations. The Great Barrington Declaration proposes to separate these groups from the rest of society, but no plan is proposed.
“Promoting the concept of ‘herd immunity’, formulated in a recent document in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is inappropriate, irresponsible and uninformed,” said the leaders of the American Society of Infectious Diseases and the HIV Association, which represent 12,000 infectious disease experts and 6,000 HIV / AIDS specialists, in a statement Wednesday.
In another joint statement Wednesday, 14 prominent public health organizations said that “the proposals made by the Great Barrington Declaration are NOT based on science” and that they would “chaotically and unnecessarily sacrifice life.”
“The declaration is not a strategy, but a political declaration,” wrote groups that include the American Public Health Association, the Association of Public Health Laboratories and the John Hopkins Center for Public Safety. “He ignores solid public health expertise. He pursues the disappointed population. Instead of selling a false hope that will predictably backfire, we need to focus on how to manage this pandemic in a safe, responsible and fair way. “
A group of 80 researchers oppose the Great Barrington Declaration in its own open letter: The John Snow Memorandum, named after a 19th-century physician who traced the source of a cholera outbreak in London and is considered the founder of modern epidemiology.
In the letter, the signatories acknowledge that there is “widespread demoralization and declining confidence” in the face of continuing restrictions in countries that have failed to adopt “adequate regulations to manage the pandemic and its social impacts.”
But society cannot simply allow the virus to spread uncontrollably to large groups of people, argues the letter, led by 30 researchers and signed by 50 others, covering public health, epidemiology, medicine, health policy and other disciplines.
Measures such as extensive testing and follow-up of contacts should be implemented, “and they should be supported by financial and social programs that encourage community response and address inequalities that are exacerbated by the pandemic,” they wrote. They named Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand as countries that have shown that the 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 therapies arrive in the coming months,” they wrote.
“We cannot afford distractions that undermine the effective response; it is essential that we act urgently on the basis of the evidence. “