Traditional medical and public health experts say that the search for widespread, or herd, immunity in the way scientists prescribe could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions of US residents.
The trio, which Azar described as “three distinguished infectious disease experts,” is in favor of moving aggressively to reopen the economy while ruling out extensive testing and other key public health measures. “Three months, maybe six, is enough time to build up enough immunity … for the vulnerable to resume normal lives,” Gupta said Monday evening in an appearance on Laura Ingraham̵
This is in line with Atlas’ approved “herd immunity” strategy, which Bhattacharya called their “contact point” for the meeting. Atlas, a neuroradiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has emerged as the president’s privileged advisor despite his lack of experience in public health, infectious disease, or epidemiology and his skepticism about basic safety measures like wearing masks.
HHS declined to comment on the scientists meeting with Azar and Atlas’ role in it, or whether the Trump administration is moving towards a herd immunity strategy.
Studies by the CDC and academic scientists concluded that fewer than 10 percent of Americans had antibodies to the virus by July. This is much lower than the 60 to 70 percent infection rate that most experts believe is necessary to achieve herd immunity. They say getting there without a vaccine would drastically increase the death toll from Covid-19 and leave large numbers of Americans with lasting health problems.
In light of these facts, Azar’s tweet has set off a wake-up call among public health experts concerned that the administration is pushing for a return to normal life before the virus is contained or a vaccine is available.
“This is not a good faith attempt to speak to experts. This is an attempt to confidently select people with credentials who happen to agree with the administration’s political instincts or political leanings, “said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Obama administration official who oversaw the disaster response. .
Scientists who met Azar have repeatedly advanced questionable theories about the risks of the virus and the impact of blockages.
Bhattacharya co-authored a study with Stanford colleagues that suggested that the coronavirus infection rate was up to 85% higher in Silicon Valley than previously estimated, suggesting that the virus was not deadly enough to warrant the continuous blocks.
The analysis, released in April without being peer-reviewed, was quickly attacked by other scientists who questioned the accuracy of the antibody test used in the study and the authors’ research methods, which included the recruitment of participants. via Facebook and scientists’ social contacts. , increasing the risk of an unrepresentative sample.
Bhattacharya and her colleagues reviewed the study results just two weeks after they published it, reducing their projection of how many people had been infected by a third.
Across the pond, Gupta and colleagues in his Oxford research group opposed the strict lockdown orders imposed by the UK in March, arguing that at the time “the mortality rate or likelihood of dying from infection was very low”. Her position earned her the nickname “Professor Reopen” in a June Wall Street Journal editorial. Meanwhile, more than 42,000 Britons have died from Covid-19 so far and more than half a million have been infected.
In his appearance on Monday at Ingraham’s Fox program, Gupta claimed to narrow the coronavirus testing criteria to focus on vulnerable people rather than school-going children and other healthier populations. General testing is “a very inefficient use of the very limited resources we have,” he said. “Do not try [healthy people.] Let them live their lives and let them develop immunity that will ultimately protect the vulnerable. “
Harvard-based Kulldorff has emphasized protecting elderly and medically vulnerable populations, while other communities gain a semblance of herd immunity.
“Somehow, herd immunity has become a toxic phrase, which is strange, as it is a scientifically proven phenomenon just like gravity,” he said in an interview with Jacobin Magazine. “The problem is how to get there with the minimum number of victims. We don’t know what percentage of coronavirus immunity is needed to achieve herd immunity, but we do know that if there are many elderly people in the group that is infected, there will be many deaths. On the other hand, if most of the young people are infected, there will be very few deaths. “
Coronavirus death rates are exponentially lower among children and young adults than the elderly, but recent studies also show they can spread the virus fairly easily. A CDC study this summer showed the rapid spread of the virus at a summer camp in Georgia, with 44 percent of people testing positive for the virus – more than half between six and 10 years of age. The results show that the virus can spread “efficiently in a youth-focused nocturnal environment: and” adds to the body of evidence showing that children of all ages are sensitive, “the scientists wrote.
Konyndyk said that the arguments of Bhattacharya, Gupta and Kulldorff only focus on the risk of death, instead of considering the potential for long-term disability and impairment from Covid-19.
“They are putting forward a half-hearted political proposal that is not grounded in science, but aligns very well with the political direction the administration wants to take and the president wants to take and which he sees as more consistent with his prospects for re-election,” He said.
But Kulldorff said the group’s approach “is nothing new, as it is standard public health practice.” The trio discussed with Azar a “targeted protection” strategy, Kulldorff said, which would involve isolating the elderly and vulnerable, but letting others return to normal life.
Bhattacharya also denied supporting a herd immunity approach, but told POLITICO that large-scale lockdowns should be lifted. “The current universal lockdown strategy, which aims for herd immunity through ineffective and difficult to enforce population control measures, will ultimately cause more harm and death both in the United States and around the world,” he said in one. e-mail.
Many cities and states have begun to ease lockdown requirements since May, and there are wide variations in restrictions across the country.
And the concept of natural herd immunity is confusing. Even in New York, which has seen the most concentrated outbreak in the United States so far, the CDC estimates that only about 22 percent of the population have antibodies to the coronavirus.
“If we’re really trying to get herd immunity naturally, I don’t think so [protecting the vulnerable] it would be possible, “said Michael Mina, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health epidemiologist.” We’d have too many cases, it would sneak in. The biggest predictor of cases entering a nursing home, for example, is what is happening at the community level. “
Federal health officials are adamant that extensive testing is the key to containing Covid-19. “We have to flood the test system,” federal infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, a three-decade veteran of epidemics, told Chris Cuomo’s Cuomo Prime Time on Monday.
According to Mara Aspinall, a professor of biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University, who helps the Rockefeller Foundation develop its recommendations on a US testing strategy.
“It is essential to control the transmission, 35,000 people who get sick every day is not acceptable,” Aspinall said. “If we have the opportunity to reduce it, we should take it.”
Federal officials like Fauci and other public health experts have repeatedly said widespread testing, wearing masks and social distancing are needed to ward off further spread as scientists scramble to produce an effective vaccine.
“We have it completely within ourselves to shut down transmission and control outbreaks sufficiently so that we don’t have to make this difficult decision of trying to gain natural herd immunity as the only option to get the economy going again,” Mina said. . “This is frankly what Trump’s policy is, whether he’s willing to say it or not.”
For his part, Azar last week denied that a herd immunity approach was gaining ground within the Trump administration.
“Herd immunity is not the US government’s strategy regarding coronavirus,” Azar said during a House Select subcommittee hearing on the Coronavirus crisis, in response to questioning by Representative Jamie Raskin (D- Md.). “We could get there, we could have a slowdown in herd transmission as we have perhaps seen in the New York area and other concentrated areas. Our mission is to reduce fatalities, protect the vulnerable, keep coronavirus cases as low as possible. . “