President Donald J. Trump remains at the White House after testing positive for covid-19. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump remains at the White House after testing positive for covid-19. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House advisors cited the “Great Barrington Declaration” as a reason to fully reopen businesses and schools.

The White House has backed a “herd immunity” strategy to fight COVID-19, otherwise known as the point at which a disease stops spreading because enough people have contracted it. While President Donald Trump thinks that might help the economy, it has been called “unethical” by the World Health Organization.

Proponents of the idea want to reach herd immunity by fully reopening schools and businesses and letting the infection spread through the community, instead of waiting on a vaccine. A meeting at the libertarian think tank American Institute for Economic Research led to the “Great Barrington Declaration” in which authors propose letting the virus spread unchecked through younger and healthier populations while offering protection for more vulnerable groups. 

“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the declaration reads. “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. We call this Focused Protection.”

One of the document’s lead authors is Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at Stanford University and a colleague of Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s new science adviser. Organizers say the declaration has more than 9,000 signatures, but no scientific credentials are required to sign, and most of the names are not shown. The document posits that societies can reach herd immunity when 10% to 20% of their populations have been infected with the virus.

This is a stark contradiction to the vast majority of scientific experts, who say that community infection is far too dangerous to attempt. According to the Mayo Clinic, it would require 70% of the US population to contract and recover from COVID-19, and then produce enough antibodies to provide long-term protection. That’s more than 200 million people — a staggering figure that would crash the health care system and likely lead to nearly 3 million deaths

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday at a briefing. “It is scientifically and ethically problematic.”

Mayo Clinic says the far safer course is to reach herd immunity via vaccine. Vaccines create immunity without people having to suffer the full-blown illness or resulting complications. With enough participation, this method of herd immunity protects those who can’t be vaccinated, such as newborns and people with compromised immune systems. Vaccines have been used to contain epidemics of many deadly diseases, including smallpox, polio and diphtheria.

Atlas, Trump’s top adviser on the coronavirus, reportedly has been pushing herd immunity to the president, and Trump publicly lauded the idea at a Pennsylvania town hall meeting in September.

“You’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality,” he said. “It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd developed — and that’s going to happen.”
The country is currently seeing a surge of infections, with 39 states reporting upward trends. As of Wednesday, there have been 7,856,605 confirmed cases in the United States and 215,887 deaths.