LENOX — Are we just cattle? “Herd immunity” claims that COVID will be vanquished once nearly all of us have been infected by it.
It’s downright offensive to see the libertarian, free-market American Institute for Economic Research think tank, based in Great Barrington, post a document and video on its website aligned with the Trump administration’s support of the concept, which amounts to reckless disregard for safety.
The AIER coined the phrase Great Barrington Declaration to make it appear that the entire town is officially endorsing herd immunity.
I have a proclamation for the institute’s crusade favoring “COVID for all”: Rename your declaration immediately and spare Great Barrington the embarrassment of being associated with questionable theories.
Three authors with prestigious credentials — though two are not MDs — wrote the declaration designed to accelerate the reopening of businesses: Oxford University epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, Harvard Medical School professor Martin Kulldorff and Dr. Jay Bhattacharyal of the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Their “Focused Protection” view is that governments should encourage the coronavirus to spread among young, healthy people. That’s their prescription for developing resistance to the virus in the population.
“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short- and long-term public health,” the declaration states, adding, “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 document, written at the AIER and posted at gbdeclaration.org Oct. 5, has attracted worldwide attention, and some support from public health specialists. The declaration has more than 10,000 signatories, though most of the names are not public. A few, like “Dr. Johnny Bananas” and “Dr. Person Fakename,” are obviously phony.
The declaration does not mention wearing masks, engaging in social distancing, avoiding crowds or any of the other recommendations urged by most government and scientific experts.
For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci has dismissed support of herd immunity, declaring: “If you talk to anybody who has any experience in epidemiology and infectious diseases, they will tell you that that is risky and you’ll wind up with many more infections of vulnerable people, which will lead to hospitalizations and death. So I think that we’ve just got to look that square in the eye and say it’s nonsense.”
The American Public Health Association and 13 other public health groups stated that following the Great Barrington Declaration would “haphazardly and unnecessarily” sacrifice lives. They called the strategy a political document that “preys on a frustrated populace ... selling false hope that will predictably backfire.”
According to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, “The strategy is a fringe component of epidemiology. This is not mainstream science. It’s dangerous. It fits into the political views of certain parts of our confused political establishment.”
“I’m sure it will be an idea that someone can wrap themselves in as a justification for skipping wearing masks or social distancing and just doing whatever they damn well please,” he added. “What I worry about with this is it’s being presented as if it’s a major alternative view that’s held by large numbers of experts in the scientific community. That is not true.”
A group of Boston-area researchers, writing in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, decried herd immunity as “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by the scientific evidence.”
The letter emphasizes that “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. We cannot afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence.”
It seems obvious that allowing uncontrolled spread of the virus among younger people could lead to significant illness and death across the entire population, especially the more vulnerable groups.
“Such a strategy would not lead to the end of COVID-19, but instead result in recurrent epidemics, as was the case with numerous infectious diseases before the advent of vaccination,” the Boston researchers’ letter says. “Continuing restrictions will probably be required in the short term to effectively suppress infections to low levels that allow rapid detection of localized outbreaks and rapid response ... Protecting our economies is inextricably tied to controlling COVID-19. We must protect our workforce and avoid long-term uncertainty.”
At the White House, two senior administration officials supported the Great Barrington Declaration after its three authors met with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuro-radiologist who is President Donald Trump’s new science expert. Atlas has also espoused herd immunity. His qualifications as the top adviser on the coronavirus have been widely questioned, since he is not a specialist in public health or infectious diseases.
The Great Barrington Declaration, lacking data, footnotes and evidence, is not a scientific document. It’s a political advocacy statement and should be dismissed as such.
I side with the critics who call the herd immunity idea potentially deadly, since many young people live in multigenerational homes and could easily infect more vulnerable people. Besides, we know of children, teens and young to middle-age adults who have become severely ill with COVID, in some cases mortally.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a close Trump ally and ABC News analyst, has just emerged, greatly chastened, from a weeklong battle against the virus spent in intensive care.
Christie admits that he was wrong to not wear a mask and he urges social distancing while continuing to push for reopenings according to those guidelines.
“Leaders, all across politics, sports, the media, should be saying to people, ‘Put your masks on and be safe until we get a vaccine that could help to protect us,’ ” Christie stated. “While we may seem very divided today, I do believe we can use this public health tragedy to bring us together. It is never too late to start. It will take leadership that both challenges and trusts the American people. After all, we are America, the world’s greatest hope.”
Information from The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times and ABC News was included in this commentary.