As the Trump administration signals a willingness to build “herd immunity” by purposely allowing the coronavirus to spread, major scientific organizations are denouncing a plan they say would be life-threatening and practically impossible.
That plan, laid out by three scientists in a controversial document called the “Great Barrington Declaration,” calls for only protecting “vulnerable” people and letting everyone else get infected with COVID-19. The authors discussed the strategy in a meeting with two top 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 fiercely pushed back in a series of formal denouncements.
“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. It is scientifically and ethically problematic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.
And on Wednesday, a group of 80 researchers called the idea “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence” in a letter published in the Lancet, a high-profile medical journal.
The Great Barrington Declaration, published on a website sponsored by a libertarian think tank, argues that the coronavirus is not that dangerous for many people, so “those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal.” Citing “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies,” the letter calls for bringing back in-person teaching, reopening restaurants and businesses, and resuming large gatherings like concerts and sports 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 of the signatures were later made private.
The document’s architects are a trio of 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 of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Atlas, a Stanford neuroradiologist on the White House coronavirus task force.
Both expressed support for the scientists’ views. Afterward, Azar tweeted that they heard “strong reinforcement of the Trump Administration’s strategy of aggressively protecting the vulnerable while opening schools and the workplace.” And on a call convened by the White House on Monday, anonymous senior administration officials referenced the Great Barrington Declaration to reporters. “We’re not endorsing a plan,” one official said, according to the Washington Post. “The plan is endorsing what the president’s policy has been for months.”
The Great Barrington Declaration is stirring public interest months into a pandemic that the federal government has failed to control. More than 216,000 Americans have died. Life has been upended in virtually every sense: Jobs have been lost on a massive scale, gatherings large and small canceled, and businesses, schools, and restaurants closed. Data indicates that the pandemic is having non–COVID-19 health effects: People are putting off getting screened for cancer and treated for strokes, and more adults are having issues related to mental health and substance abuse.
As the world awaits a vaccine, “pandemic fatigue” is spreading in the US and elsewhere. In the UK, where COVID-19 cases are surging again, lawmakers are contending with public resistance as they seek to implement a second round of lockdown measures.
But the mainstream scientific community says that essentially giving up on protecting healthy people from the virus is not an acceptable solution.
Up to 90% of the US population remains susceptible to the virus, according to recent CDC estimates. Health experts worry that letting the pathogen spread unchecked in healthy people, in the absence of a vaccine, would sicken, hospitalize, and kill many of them, not to mention overwhelm the healthcare system. And even if young, healthy people die at relatively lower rates, they can still transmit the virus to at-risk groups or join the “long-haulers” who endure debilitating symptoms for months on end. It also is not guaranteed that survivors will become immune forever: No one knows how long immunity lasts, and there have been a handful of reported reinfections.
These experts also say that it would also be next to impossible to isolate the millions of “vulnerable” Americans who are elderly, have preexisting conditions, or live in multigenerational households. The Great Barrington Declaration proposes to sequester these groups from the rest of society but does not provide a plan for how to do so.
“Promoting the concept of ‘herd immunity’ as framed in a recently circulated document as an answer to the COVID-19 pandemic is inappropriate, irresponsible and ill-informed,” said the heads of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the HIV Medicine Association, which respectively represent 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 declared that “the suggestions put forth by the Great Barrington Declaration are NOT based in science” and they would “haphazardly and unnecessarily sacrifice lives.”
“The declaration is not a strategy, it is a political statement,” wrote the groups, which included the American Public Health Association, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Security. “It ignores sound public health expertise. It preys on a frustrated populace. Instead of selling false hope that will predictably backfire, we must focus on how to manage this pandemic in a safe, responsible, and equitable way.”
And a group of 80 researchers is countering the Great Barrington Declaration with an open letter of its own: the John Snow Memorandum, named for the 19th-century physician who tracked the source of a cholera outbreak in London and is considered a founder of modern epidemiology.
In the letter, the signatories acknowledged that there has been “widespread demoralisation and diminishing trust” in the face of ongoing restrictions in countries that have failed to adopt “adequate provisions to manage the pandemic and its societal impacts.”
But society cannot simply allow the virus to spread unchecked in large groups of people, argued the letter, which was led by 30 researchers and signed by 50 others spanning public health, epidemiology, medicine, health policy, and other disciplines.
Measures such as widespread testing and contact tracing need to be implemented, “and they must be supported by financial and social programmes that encourage community responses and address the inequities that have been amplified 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 community spread of COVID-19 is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months,” they wrote.
“We cannot afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence.”