Scientists, doctors totally at odds over best way to deal with coronavirus.
By Tilton Adler
The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) has become a hotly debated proposition since Oct. 4 when it was released to fellow scientists and then published online at “gbdeclaration.org.” The GBD was named after the location in Massachusetts where it was conceived and authored, by three world-renowned professors from Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford. “As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists,” they write, “we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing Covid-19 policies and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection. Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people.”
The declaration states, in simple terms, that the effects of Covid-19 lockdown measures are devastating and doing irreparable damage, with disproportionate harm to the disadvantaged. The authors suggest, instead, “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.”
Interestingly, the City of Great Barrington distanced itself in a public statement, claiming the GBD “created harmful misperceptions” about the city, “just as we are doing all we can to protect residents, employees, and visitors.”
The declaration suggests that, as scientists have achieved a better understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its impact, they have found that “vulnerability to death from Covid-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, Covid-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.” Thus, the GBD calls for life to be allowed to return to normal for individuals who are less vulnerable. This includes children resuming in-person learning and pre-Covid-19 extracurricular activities such as sporting events, music concerts, and art exhibits; young adults should return to an on-site work environment rather than working from home. The declaration does sensibly indicate that hygiene measures such as “hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold.”
Herd immunity is a term that has been thrown around, often incorrectly, since the beginning of this pandemic, most notably in referring to Sweden’s refusal to lock down the country and its economy. Merriam-Webster’s definition is: “a reduction in the risk of infection with a specific communicable disease (such as measles or influenza) that occurs when a significant proportion of the population has become immune to infection (as because of previous exposure or vaccination) so that susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals.” The GBD authors define herd immunity simply as “the point at which the rate of new infections is stable” and say that reaching this point “can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine.”
Response to the GBD has been mixed and, in some cases, extreme. The Guardian quotes a Yale epidemiologist, who declared the declaration’s “grotesque” approach would be a “culling of the sick and elderly.” The Wall Street Journal’s Assistant Editor James Freeman, on the other hand, devoted a column to asking why the media’s not reporting more on this widely supported position. The American Council on Science and Health is praising the document’s authors for suggesting “trying something new” since “our current on-again, off-again approach to containment isn’t working as intended.”
One day after the declaration was published, the GBD authors met with two top White House appointees, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Covid-19 Task Force advisor Scott Atlas. Afterwards, Azar tweeted, “In the conversation . . . we heard strong reinforcement of the Trump administration’s strategy of aggressively protecting the vulnerable while opening schools and the workplace.”
To summarize, the Trump administration’s approach to quelling the virus is to achieve herd immunity, with or without the vaccine, which some believe is in itself a problem. The effectiveness of herd immunity depends on whether or not having had the virus makes one immune from the effects of the virus in the future. In the case of Covid-19, that proposition is questionable.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported on the so-called John Snow Memorandum, a letter signed by 6,200 “scientists, health professionals, and research organizations,” including UCS, which was published Oct. 14 in The Lancet under the headline: “Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: We need to act now.” UCS writes: “The John Snow Memorandum . . . warns that many factors render herd immunity a ‘dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.’ Chief among them are that the coronavirus is much deadlier than the seasonal flu, and it remains unclear how long any immunity lasts after one recovers from an infection, [which] makes it likely that a herd immunity strategy . . . will surely cause a huge number of preventable deaths, run the risk of triggering recurrent epidemics, and potentially ‘overwhelm the ability of healthcare systems to provide acute and routine care.’ ”
The GBD has now amassed support and signatures from over 10,000 medical and public health scientists, nearly 28,000 medical practitioners, well over 500,000 concerned citizens, and, now, the team surrounding the president of the United States. Only time will tell if this approach will be the panacea we’ve all been hoping for and life can go back to normal after an unknown period of time or simply another desperate strategy that could end up costing more lives.
The epidemiologists who authored the Great Barrington Resolution are:
Dr. Martin Kulldorff, professor of medicine at Harvard University, a biostatistician, and epidemiologist with expertise in detecting and monitoring infectious disease outbreaks and vaccine safety evaluations;
Dr. Sunetra Gupta, professor at Oxford University, an epidemiologist with expertise in immunology, vaccine development, and mathematical modeling of infectious diseases; and
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor at Stanford University Medical School, a physician, epidemiologist, health economist, and public health policy expert focusing on infectious diseases and vulnerable populations.
Full text of the resolution along with information about its creation is online at “gbdeclaration.org” as well as extensive video of the event: “From October 1-4, 2020, the American Institute for Economic Research hosted a remarkable meeting of top epidemiologists, economists, and journalists to discuss the global emergency created by the unprecedented use of state compulsion in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. The result is The Great Barrington Declaration, which urges a ‘Focused Protection’ strategy.”