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Aim for herd immunity instead of lockdowns? Beware!

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Photo: Timon Studler
Thousands of scientists and health experts have signed the “Great Barrington Declaration” (named for the Massachusetts town where it was drafted on October 4). The declaration denounces lockdowns and calls for a return to “normal” activities. What should we think of this position? The Rumour Detector fact-checked it.

This letter was written by three epidemiologists – Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University and Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University. It warns against lockdowns as a strategy to counter COVID-19. The authors maintain that they are “producing devastating effects” on public health. Among the consequences, they cite “lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health”. 

The authors call for a “herd immunity” approach. Only “vulnerable” individuals should be protected from the virus. For others, they advocate a return to normal life. This means in-person teaching, opening restaurants and businesses, working at the office and cultural and sports gatherings.  

Five days after its launch, over 180,000 people had signed, including more than 5,900 who identified themselves as “medical and public health scientists”. One identification disappeared from the site on October 12, after journalists reported the presence of several fake names among the “experts”. The signatures also included over a hundred practitioners of dubious therapies or homeopaths.  

For and against 

Many public health researchers have taken a stand against this letter. Gregg Gonsalves, Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Public Health, described the Declaration as “wrong in so many ways” in a barrage of tweets. He argued that it would essentially expel the elderly, the chronically ill and the disabled from society.  

Others are more moderate in their criticisms. Questioned by the British Science Media Centre, James Naismith, a Professor of Structural Biology at Oxford University, points out that there is a broad consensus on some statements of the Declaration, even among the defenders of lockdowns. For example, it identifies the elderly and vulnerable as much more at risk of COVID-19. There’s no longer any doubt that the lockdown and the disruptions of education, social life and the economy have been difficult to bear. There’s also no doubt that they particularly affect young people, the group least likely to suffer harmful effects from COVID-19. This was one of the arguments advanced by the Québec government to reopen the schools.  

However, the Declaration omits certain scientific information that would help better inform the political decision-makers.  

Is herd immunity possible? 

The expression “herd immunity” refers to a time when enough of the population has developed a lasting immunity against reinfection with the coronavirus, making its spread much more difficult. However, there is still doubt whether everyone who contracts COVID-19 will develop such immunity and, if so, how long it lasts.  

Above all, most epidemiologists recognize that we’re still a long way from such herd immunity. The Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Robert Redfield, estimated in September that no less than 90% of Americans had never contracted COVID-19, and thus remain sensitive to the virus. According to research published in The Lancet at the end of September, the proportion of the American population infected by the virus (and who therefore developed antibodies) would only be 9.3%. 

More people infected means more hospitalizations  

Even though far fewer young adults succumb to COVID-19, a significant proportion fall sick enough to be hospitalized. This requires more hospital beds. Young healthy people who contract COVID-19 may suffer for months from debilitating effects that still aren’t well understood.  

How can we protect the most vulnerable? 

The other aspect the Declaration underestimates is that it’s very difficult to isolate vulnerable individuals. In other words, healthy young adults who are infected will contribute sooner or later to transmit the virus to older people. It’s “impossible” to identify all the vulnerable individuals and isolate them completely, says Dr. Rupert Beale, of the Francis Crick Institute of London, in response to the Declaration.  

The three epidemiologists who wrote the letter are also criticized for being vague on how to achieve this “targeted protection” of the most vulnerable and the objective of herd immunity. According to many health experts, the reason herd immunity isn’t sought is that it would lead to a very large number of new patients and kill many others.  

Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, stated that the Declaration only made sense as an argument against a complete lockdown until a vaccine is ready. He points out that certain countries, like South Korea and New Zealand, are managing the pandemic relatively well without resorting to a lockdown. “But their strategies do not include simply letting the virus run wild whilst hoping that the asthmatic community and the elderly can find somewhere to hide for 12 months.» 

The World Health Organization and public health authorities in most large countries also declared that a combination of personal protection measures and stricter lockdown measures, in addition to generalized screening and contact tracing, were a better approach against COVID-19, instead of letting the virus rage. 

Political influence behind the Declaration? 

Some observers have also pointed out that the Great Barrington Declaration was signed at the offices of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), identified with the American Right, which defends “individual sovereignty”, “limited government” and “a society based on property rights and open markets”.  

“This is not, then, epidemiology at all. Nor is it science. It is far-right economics. And the logic that underpins it is that of that branch of economic thinking,” argues Richard Murphy, Guest Professor at Sheffield University Management School and City University of London, in a blog on the Tax Research site he directs. 

One of the authors of the Declaration, Jay Bhattacharya, is also a former researcher at the Hoover Institution of Stanford, a conservative think tank close to the Republican Party. Scott Atlas, the radiologist who was appointed in mid-August to the President’s Coronavirus Task Force, is also a Senior Fellow at that Institution.  

This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).


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