Three epidemiologists who met with a top Trump administration health official Monday are urging governments worldwide to take a controversial approach to the pandemic: allowing everyone except those considered vulnerable to immediately “resume life as normal” until large numbers of people have immunity.
Harvard professor Martin Kulldorff, Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta and Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya wrote in an open letter that current coronavirus-related restrictions carry too high a cost, citing lower childhood vaccination rates, mental health repercussions and worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes as examples. The letter is called the “Great Barrington Declaration,” after the Massachusetts town where it was signed over the weekend during a forum at the American Institute for Economic Research, which advocates limited government, free markets and “pure freedom.”
“As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all — including the vulnerable — falls,” the letter says. “We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity — i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable — and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.”
It continues: “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.”
Strategies that involve letting the virus spread to reach herd immunity, the point at which enough people have become immune to make its spread unlikely, have been embraced by Scott Atlas, who in August became a medical adviser to Trump. Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford’s conservative think tank, met with the Great Barrington Declaration authors on Monday.
But experts have said that pursuing such strategies could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States. World Health Organization officials called the concept “very dangerous.”
“If we think about herd immunity in a natural sense of just letting a virus run, it’s very dangerous,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic. “A lot of people would die.”
In a Twitter thread about the declaration, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves agreed that the pandemic had caused indirect harm that needs to be addressed. But he noted flaws with the proposed strategy, including that almost 50 percent of Americans have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“I get it,” he wrote. “We’re all tired. This pandemic sucks. The measures we’ve had to take are terrible too. But beware of the answers you want to hear.”