Why is the press and officialdom suddenly shrieking about “herd immunity”? On Oct. 12, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said pursuing herd immunity is “unethical.” Within hours, most of the media broadcast the same message. It’s as though someone sent out a list of talking points.
“Sweden’s experiment with herd immunity is unethical and undemocratic,” Australia’s ABC intoned, “and reveals an underlying political pathology.” According to Fortune, herd immunity against SARS-CoV2 is a “myth.”
Time called Sweden’s coronavirus response a “disaster.” “From early on,” the magazine claimed, “the Swedish government seemed to treat it as a foregone conclusion that many people would die.” The Washington Post is claiming that herd immunity is now the White House’s “strategy,” supposedly on advice from White House advisor Scott Atlas.
“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus,” claimed the head of WHO, “not by exposing them to it.” According to him, “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic.”
This is misleading. First, herd immunity is all about exposure. A study of nearly 6,000 individuals out Oc. 13 finds that, outside one outlier, the COVID-positive patients sampled retained their immunity to the disease for at least five to seven months, the duration of the study.
After enough people get and recover from an infection, the virus loses most of its routes for new infections. Indeed, the main purpose of the annual flu vaccine is to speed up herd immunity by reducing the number of susceptible people. Just as huddling inside in the winter helps spread flu, and thereby pneumonia, so herd immunity helps bring down death rates in the summer.
Second, herd immunity isn’t so much a strategy as a fact of life when dealing with infectious agents like the coronavirus. Even the Time article that lambasted Sweden admits that it’s not quite fair to say the Nordic country pursued a herd immunity “strategy.” Rather, it had an anti-lockdown policy.
Still, any strategy that ignores herd immunity is foolish, since that is precisely how infection rates fall in pandemics.
So why the renewed furor over herd immunity? We suspect it’s really aimed at the thousands of scientists and medical practitioners who have signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which invokes the term favorably.
For lockdown partisans in the press and Big Tech, the declaration is a clear and present danger. They’re working hard to suppress it. After all, it refutes the narrative that all scientists agree with the lockdowns. Its three principal authors hail from Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford universities. They have as many scientific chops as any of the lockdown partisans.
So the media have done everything they can, first to ignore, and then to tar, feather, and misrepresent the scientists who organized this effort. The campaign against a supposed “herd immunity strategy,” or what some call the “let people die” approach, is really a proxy war against the declaration.
Other, pro-lockdown scientists have now responded to the Great Barrington Declaration with the “John Snow Memorandum,” published in The Lancet on Oct. 14. Predictably, Dr. Anthony Fauci, when asked about the declaration, called it “dangerous” and “nonsense.”
This looks like a smear campaign designed to prevent Americans, including the president, from hearing the scientific case against the lockdowns. That’s much easier to do if the public thinks the only alternative is letting people die.
But the scientists behind the Great Barrington advocate nothing like that. They call for focused protection, a strategy that confers the greatest benefits with the fewest costs. These scientists argue that population-wide lockdowns are all pain and little gain. They also know that we’re going to reach herd immunity at some point whatever our approach. How much damage we cause in the meantime is the question.
Finally, they know that the elderly are about 1,000 times more at risk of death from COVID-19 than the young. Therefore, they argue, we should end the disastrous lockdowns, focus on protecting the most vulnerable, treat those who get sick with all the tools in our arsenal — including those President Trump received — and let immunity build up among those with very little risk.
This wasn’t the initial Swedish approach. That country failed to protect and sequester nursing homes, which were the source of most Swedish deaths.
The alternative is to keep pressing lockdowns, no matter the cost in lives and wellbeing, until a vaccine is available for all. That should be a non-starter. In our new book “The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe,” we show that the forced lockdowns had no discernable effect on the spread of the coronavirus. Worse, they will kill more people than the virus itself.
The Great Barrington Declaration has it right. And so does President Trump. But he has not yet clearly embraced the science and the many scientists who can provide the scientific heft behind this policy. That policy is focused protection. It is the most ethical and rational choice. The media campaign against “herd immunity” is a cynical effort to keep this approach from gaining traction.