Dozens of public health groups, experts blast 'herd immunity' strategy backed by White House

Dozens of scientists and public health organizations warned in open letters this week against a “herd immunity” strategy being endorsed by top officials at the White House, calling it dangerous and deadly. 

A senior Trump administration official during a call with reporters Monday organized by the White House praised the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, a proposal by a small group of doctors that calls for quickly reaching herd immunity by letting COVID-19 spread uncontrolled among the young and healthy population while protecting the vulnerable.

Herd immunity, typically achieved with a vaccine, is the point at which a disease, like measles, stops spreading widely throughout a population because enough people have been infected and are immune to it. It’s not clear if prior COVID-19 infection confers long-term immunity to the disease.

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The three doctors behind the declaration met with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar last week to discuss the declaration, as first reported by The Hill.

Those developments have alarmed public health experts, scientists and doctors, who were shocked the Trump administration would seemingly endorse a fringe idea they say would lead to more suffering and death. 

“If followed, the recommendations in the Great Barrington Declaration would haphazardly and unnecessarily sacrifices lives,” 14 public health groups, including the Trust for America’s Health and the American Public Health Association, wrote in an open letter Thursday.

“The declaration is not a strategy, it is a political statement. 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.” 

The Great Barrington Declaration argues that lockdowns “are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” including fewer cancer screenings, lower childhood vaccination rates and deteriorating mental health.

“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk,” the declaration reads. “We call this Focused Protection.”

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Martin Kulldorff, a professor at Harvard; Sunetra Gupta, a professor at Oxford; and Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford, all of whom are epidemiologists studying infectious diseases, were invited to a meeting last week with Azar and Scott Atlas, an adviser to Trump on whom other experts have cast doubt for his statements about COVID-19, including his endorsement of herd immunity. 

Public health experts generally acknowledge the negative impact of the restrictions and agree that a better balance must be found between protecting public health and helping the economy, especially with regards to children who have been kept out of school.

But the groups argued that allowing COVID-19 to spread uncontrollably is not the right answer and would lead to unnecessary deaths, illness and hospitalizations, even if the U.S. attempted to isolate vulnerable people from the rest of the population while the virus spreads.  

“This notion is dangerous because it puts the entire population, particularly the most vulnerable, at risk. Young people are not all healthy and they don’t live in vacuums,” the groups wrote. 

“They interact with family members, co-workers and neighbors. Inviting increased rates of COVID-19 in young people will lead to increased infections rates among all Americans.”

The groups did not endorse “lockdowns” to fight COVID-19, measures that were taken in the early days of the pandemic to slow the spread. Experts generally now support wearing masks, social distancing and, when needed, temporarily closing or limiting capacity at businesses or facilities in areas where COVID-19 spread is increasing. 

“Combatting the pandemic with lockdowns or full reopening is not a binary, either/or choice,” the groups wrote. 

The Great Barrington Declaration does not mention mask-wearing or social distancing, which most experts say are keys to safely reopening the economy, because the point of the strategy is to let the virus spread unchecked among younger, healthier people.  

“Public health guidance and requirements related to masking and physical distancing are not an impediment to normalcy they are the path to a new normal,” the groups wrote. 

In a separate letter published in The Lancet medical journal Wednesday, dozens of scientists, researchers and doctors made similar arguments, noting the risk to the entire population if the virus is allowed to spread among young people and that there is no evidence that infection leads to long-lasting immunity. 

“Proponents suggest this would lead to the development of infection-acquired population immunity in the low-risk population, which will eventually protect the vulnerable,” the letter reads. 

“This is a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.” 

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The “John Snow Memorandum” goes on to state that such a strategy would risk “significant morbidity and mortality,” threaten to overwhelm health care systems and harm the economy and health care workers.

Isolating the “vulnerable” is also “practically impossible and highly unethical,” the letter states.

“Empirical evidence from many countries shows that it is not feasible to restrict uncontrolled outbreaks to particular sections of society.”

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