On Monday, the White House organized a pandemic-focused appeal to the press “in the background” — intended to give a glimpse into the thinking of the administration, but not to provide quotes attributable to a government official. During the conversation, unspecified White House officials touted a document that supported the idea of herd immunity as a plan to contain the pandemic, saying it reflected the government’s thinking.
The document, called the Great Barrington Declaration, was drafted by a libertarian think tank with the help of a handful of scientists who have suggested that COVID-19 poses no real threat. And it has attracted enough attention that the World Health Organization decided to tackle it. The result seriously undermined what the White House intended to achieve.
“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy to respond to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” said WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It’s scientifically and ethically problematic.”
Not so great Barrington
The document in question is called the Great Barrington Declaration and was organized under the auspices of the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank associated with the Koch network. The statement itself was spearheaded by a group of scientists who have suggested that many countries are already close to herd immunity and have been doing so since the start of the pandemic. For example, several of these researchers were involved in an antibody study on SARS-CoV-2 exposure that was torn apart by experts in the field. The document has attracted a large number of signatories. Some of them have actual expertise, but others, like some homeopaths, just believe they have expertise, and many others are just internet vandals signing up with fake names.
Despite the poor reception of its research from the field, the group has been trying to get the attention of the Trump administration since the beginning of the summer.
The statement does what most herd immunity advocates have done: play out the effects of lockdowns and minimize the effects of the deadly pandemic. “Current lockdown policies are having devastating effects on public health in the short and long term,” it says, before suggesting that most of these are caused by people not providing normal medical care during the pandemic. How to provide normal medical care during an uncontrolled pandemic was left to the reader as practice.
The researchers then argue that “the most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of achieving herd immunity is to allow those at minimal risk of death to lead their lives normally to build immunity to the virus through natural infection.” , while those most at risk are better protected.” The compassion’s version in the statement goes on to describe ending all restrictions on high-risk activities — work, schools, concerts, sports and more should be resumed for anyone deemed low-risk.
The statement even suggests that higher-risk individuals may want to risk death for the benefit of society: “People who are more at risk can participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection afforded to the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”
In a word, no
WHO’s Ghebreyesus isn’t impressed with the idea. “Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” he said, pointing out that vaccines are the only things that consistently provide that protection. And the problems with herd immunity from infection are huge.
For starters, in cases like polio and measles where we have achieved herd immunity, successful vaccination of 80 and 90 percent of the population was required, respectively. Currently, studies of most populations indicate that “in most countries, less than 10 percent of the population is infected with the COVID-19 virus.”
On top of that, we don’t understand how infection relates to immunity. A (fortunately small) number of cases of second infections have been reported, and we don’t know why they occur. More generally, Ghebreyesus said, we don’t know how long immunity lasts or what explains the seemingly variable responses to infection seen when examining T cells or antibody production. Without that knowledge, it is difficult to determine whether infection can lead to herd immunity at all.
Ghebreyesus also reminded everyone that low risk doesn’t mean no risk — people of all ages have died. And we’re just beginning to characterize the lingering symptoms of what’s been called “long COVID.” Given that the virus didn’t even infected humans around this time last year, it’s far too early to say how long the symptoms of COVID-19 will last and whether they are the result of relatively permanent tissue damage. Without that understanding, it’s difficult to determine whether a population is truly low-risk.
All of that doesn’t even address the question of why herd immunity wasn’t considered an option in the first place. An uncontrolled infection of even the less vulnerable population threatens to overburden health care infrastructure, cause excessive mortality from non-COVID-19 diseases and lead to the exact same loss of normal medical care that the Great Barrington statement said. complains.
Finally, Ghebreyesus reminded everyone that lockdowns were just one tool in a large arsenal of interventions that could be used to contain the pandemic. While they may be necessary in cases where the infection rate is rising rapidly, things like contact tracing and the use of masks could help contain the pandemic in countries where the infection rate remains relatively low – which he says are currently the majority of the population. representing countries.
“Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to roam free is just unethical,” Ghebreyesus summed up, later saying it “means to allow unnecessary infections, suffering and death.”
WTF White House
So why in the world is the White House promoting a document with signatories that reads “Dr. Johnny Bananas” and “Professor Notaf Uckingclue” instead of WHO — or, for that matter, its own Centers for Disease Control, that policy has developed advice aimed at limiting the spread of infections?
It’s hard to know how this happened, given the anonymity granted to the people who provided the background – The New York Times simply called them two “senior officials.” But another reporter on the line is noted the administration’s health experts and the entire COVID task force did not participate. So this appears to be an attempt by people in the White House to undermine their own health experts.
An obvious candidate to drive that effort is Scott Atlas, a neurologist who calls himself an infectious disease expert and previously known for promoting herd immunity. But Atlas has been advising the administration for months and why his ideas would now suddenly be openly embraced is not clear.
It may ultimately be because Trump personally, and the administration more broadly, has undermined the advice of health experts in various ways since the early days of the pandemic. The Great Barrington Declaration, despite its fringe ideas and the overwhelming support of internet vandals, offers an opportunity to pretend that the government’s response is a plan and not a combination of political stance and the president’s complete lack of impulse control. The fact that no one from the government is willing to go public in approving this document suggests that most of them are acknowledging it for what it is.