The White House is embracing a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would allow COVID-19 to spread freely and is widely disputed by scientists



Steven Mnuchin wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump at a briefing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the coronavirus advisor Scott Atlas in August. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images


© BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
President Donald Trump at a briefing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the coronavirus advisor Scott Atlas in August. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

  • White House officials say the administration is warming to a controversial herd-immunity strategy advocated in a document called the Great Barrington Declaration. 
  • Under the strategy, those not particularly vulnerable to serious infections are allowed to live normally while the vulnerable are shielded.
  • The document is widely criticized by scientists and emphatically rejected by the World Health Organization, the UK government, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The White House is embracing a controversial “herd immunity” strategy in response to the coronavirus, according to a briefing given by anonymous senior officials.

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The strategy would allow the virus to spread freely with the belief that most of the population would develop a degree of immunity. It advocates shielding the more vulnerable to limit loss of life.

Two administration officials, who were not authorized to give their names, gave the briefing to media organizations including Business Insider.

They cited a controversial document, the Great Barrington Declaration, which was drawn up last week by Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University.

It has been signed by scientists and health experts across the world, but it has also drawn widespread criticism from public-health officials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, takes an opposite view of the virus, urging drastic action to limit its spread.

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Tuesday that a herd-immunity approach was “scientifically and ethically problematic.”

The UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, attacked the Great Barrington Declaration by name in Parliament on Tuesday and said it was based on flawed information.

The UK broadcaster Sky News last week found that some of the signatories on the document, which is open, allowing anyone to sign it in support, had used fake names, including “Dr. Person Fakename” and “Dr. Johnny Bananas.”

The declaration argues that most restrictions meant to limit the virus’ spread are having a devastating impact on public health and should be immediately lifted for all but the most vulnerable.

Since its release last Thursday, the declaration has been criticized in an open letter by other experts, who say there is no convincing evidence that high levels of immunity are achievable without a vaccine.

They noted that shielding the vulnerable has proved difficult and that a much higher proportion of the population than the elderly are at risk of long-term complications from the disease.

Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s Clinical Operational Research Unit, on Twitter noted that the herd-immunity approach was rejected by most of the world’s top public-health bodies. She said those advocating it were breaking with scientific consensus.

President Donald Trump has been accused throughout the pandemic of ignoring the advice of scientists and public-health officials, rapidly pushing for the US economy to reopen, hosting packed campaign events, and offering limited support for public-health measures.

Olivia Troye, a former official on the White House coronavirus task force, has said the president’s approach is guided more by concern for reelection than by concern for human life.

In March the Trump administration adopted a suppression strategy, advocating a series of stringent lockdown measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, after a study by experts at Imperial College London found that a failure to do so could result in the deaths of 2.2 million Americans.

In a recent shake-up Trump appointed Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford expert in public health but not infectious diseases, as an advisor to the White House on the coronavirus.

In a recent interview with Business Insider, Atlas said he did not advocate herd immunity, after The Washington Post reported that this was the approach he had advised Trump to adopt.

The unnamed White House officials in the media briefing said the declaration vindicated Trump’s approach of shielding the vulnerable while encouraging society to reopen.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bulletin most recently updated in September says that eight in 10 people who have died with COVID-19 in the US are over 65, the age group that is considered at most risk from the disease and would be shielded under a herd-immunity strategy.

The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Business Insider.

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