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'False Hope That Will Predictably Backfire': Scientists Condemn 'Herd Immunity' Letter

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Medical staff move bodies from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to a refrigerated truck on April 2, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York.
Medical staff move bodies from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to a refrigerated truck on April 2, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Angela Weiss (Getty Images)

Scientists and public health organizations are taking a firm stance against a recently circulated document—the Great Barrington Declaration—that calls for countries to largely abandon efforts to contain the spread of the covid-19 pandemic in lieu of a “herd immunity” strategy focused on younger, less vulnerable individuals. In various criticisms released this week, they bash the plan as impractical, unethical, and only likely to cause more death and illness.

One such condemnation, released Wednesday, was endorsed by 14 public health organizations, including the American Public Health Association. The statement singles out the declaration as not a strategy, but a political statement, one that ignores “sound public health expertise” and “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 statement read.

A group of 31 scientists published their own retort to the declaration in the medical journal The Lancet. Their collective statement is called the John Snow Memorandum—a reference to the 19th-century physician regarded as one of the founders of modern epidemiology. They similarly attack the declaration as a half-baked measure.


Herd immunity is defined as when enough people in a community are immune to a germ that it can no longer spread easily to uninfected people, particularly those more susceptible to serious illness. This is typically accomplished through safe and tested vaccines. But the Great Barrington Declaration calls for countries to resume nearly all aspects of society as usual and simply allow younger people to become naturally infected, while also implementing a vaguely described “focused protection” approach for older or more vulnerable populations. But though younger people are less likely to die from covid-19, the John Snow memo notes, their risks of serious harm are still substantial on a population level, and it’s likely impossible to even resume “normal life” or to prevent the virus from spreading to vulnerable people if the pandemic is mostly left unchecked.

“In addition to the human cost, this would impact the workforce as a whole and overwhelm the ability of health care systems to provide acute and routine care,” the memo reads. “Furthermore, there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection, and the endemic transmission that would be the consequence of waning immunity would present a risk to vulnerable populations for the indefinite future.”

Another key point is that the definition of vulnerable extends far beyond the elderly when it comes to covid-19. About 14% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 65 have diabetes, for instance, a major risk factor for severe covid-19. In communities of color, the risk of dying is greater for younger people, with roughly a third of deaths occurring among Black and Hispanics under the age of 65.

Not to be left out, the Infectious Disease Society of America (representing over 12,000 researchers in the field) and the HIV Medicine Association released their own joint debunking of the declaration.


“To assert that stepping away from the vigilance needed to control the spread of this novel coronavirus and that abdication of efforts to control a pandemic that has overwhelmed health systems worldwide is a ‘compassionate approach’ is profoundly misleading,” their statement read.

Though the Great Barrington Declaration is backed by some researchers with expertise in epidemiology or infectious disease, it also includes signatures from people with no relevant expertise, not to mention some obviously made-up names like “Dr. Johnny Bananas.” The declaration also appears to have received support in some shape or form from the American Institute for Economic Research, a right-wing funded think tank that continues to promote climate denialism. And several of the primary scientists involved in the group have been accused of shoddy and possibly unethical research practices in their earlier work justifying a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.


In truth, there have been countries capable of resuming the sort of normalcy championed by herd immunity proponents during the pandemic. By and large, though, these countries have been the most aggressive in trying to contain the community spread of the illness. While there is no one-size-fits-all model for battling covid-19, there’s no shortage of practical steps that are available, provided the political will and resources are there (given the Trump administration’s dismal response to the pandemic so far, it’s no surprise that they seem to be the only ones taking the declaration seriously.)

“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,” the John Snow memo concludes.