Herd Immunity Is 'Pixie Dust Thinking,' Infectious Disease Expert Says

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A Massachusetts General Hospital researcher registers the name of a Chelsea resident at a pop-up testing site in Bellingham Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Massachusetts General Hospital researcher registers the name of a Chelsea resident at a pop-up testing site in Bellingham Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Trump administration has embraced the Great Barrington Declaration, a petition with mostly anonymous signers claiming that herd immunity will end the pandemic.

The declaration says that opening up countries will encourage healthy people to get on with their lives, infecting as many healthy people as possible while keeping the elderly and vulnerable shut away.

The approach purports that spreading the virus among the healthy will create “herd immunity” and the disease will stop spreading because nearly everyone has contracted it. Two senior administration officials spoke to The New York Times anonymously about the declaration, which grew out of the libertarian American Institute for Economic Research.

Most of the document’s 9,000 signatures are private, but among its public signers are Nobel laureate Michael Levitt from Stanford University; Dr. Cody Meissner, professor of pediatrics, an expert on vaccine development at Tufts Medical Center; and a doctor at Stanford, where Scott Atlas, the president's current science adviser who believes in herd immunity, studied.

Scientists have discredited this theory, especially for coronaviruses.

“It is not based on any good science suggesting that somehow you can bubble the well people ...  and those who have underlying risk factors that would have serious illness. It's just pixie dust thinking,” says Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The medical community is in an uproar over the petition because it’s “just plain dangerous,” he says. “We could expect to see three to four times the number of deaths that we've already had in this country if that were to play out.”

Interview Highlights

On how long immunity will last

“Well, we will achieve … herd immunity. That’s not an issue. It's like gravity. It's going to occur. The question is, how does that occur? Is it through natural disease, where then we count on the immunity coming from actually having the infection, or will it occur through vaccination?

“And regardless of whether or not it's from natural disease or vaccination, we are going to have to deal with this issue of durable immunity. How long will it last? Remember, we don't have durable immunity with influenza and yet we get vaccinated every year and we prevent many, many thousands of lives from dying because of influenza, so I think that's the real message we're getting across here, is that no one is suggesting that we aren't going to have to deal with this virus in a way that on a population basis, most of us will be immune someday. The question is how we get there.”

On the efficacy of a vaccine as compared to the herd-immunity strategy

“The really important message here is, is that if you get infected with this virus, you may not die, but you may very well develop another condition called long-haulers, which is a chronic condition, which we're now seeing in anywhere from 20% to 30% of people who had mild illness at the beginning of the course. But by week five or six post illness, they actually now are experiencing severe chronic fatigue syndrome like pictures. If you look at their chest X-rays, they have damage to their heart and their lungs, and so we really haven't fully understood yet exactly all of the negative impacts of being infected. I would much rather achieve my immunity, even if it’s short-lived, through a vaccine with the idea that then I would get booster doses over time. Going at this by just facing infection as the answer is just not based on any credible science.”

On what he would say to people who believe in the steps outlined in the Great Barrington Declaration

“Well, I think the first thing you have to look at is who signed that — no one with credibility in the area of [COVID-19] research and development. [No one] who is coming from the public health world that has had to deal with [COVID-19] on the front lines [is] signing that. I think that's the important message is the fact that just because you can get names ... we have very prominent physicians who are anti-vaccine, period. We've seen people who are well outside of their area of expertise will sign on as a social event. So to me, I think the World Health Organization, the [National Institutes of Health], the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], you know, thousands of people who are truly the public health experts on infectious diseases not only have not signed it, but actually oppose it as dangerous.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayElie Levine adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 14, 2020.

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