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Public Health Experts Raise Alarm as Trump White House Embraces 'Fringe' Declaration Pushing Herd Immunity

"It's being presented as if it's a major alternative view that's held by large numbers of experts in the scientific community. That is not true."

People were out shopping on Newbury Street in Boston on Sept. 24, 2020. (Photo: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Public health experts on Tuesday evening into Wednesday raised alarm over reports that the White House has embraced a declaration calling for a "herd immunity" approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic, put forward by scientists whose views have been denounced as "fringe" by National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins.

"This is a fringe component of epidemiology. This is not mainstream science. It's dangerous. It fits into the political views of certain parts of our confused political establishment."
—Dr. Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health

Reporters spoke on Monday with an anonymous senior administration official about the "Great Barrington Declaration," a document unveiled on Oct. 4 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts at the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank.

The declaration promotes a strategy called "Focused Protection"—what one professor at the University of New South Wales called a rebranding of "herd immunity," in which Covid-19 would be permitted to spread through the young and relatively healthy population while the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions would follow public health guidance to prevent them from contracting the disease. The document calls for a return to schools, workplaces, and normal pre-pandemic routines as a means of allowing the virus to spread at "natural" rates. 

Three epidemiologists in particular—Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, Sunetra Gupta of University of Oxford, and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford Medical School—were signatories of the document and have been mentioned by name in recent press briefings by Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and senior fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution who has become one of President Donald Trump's top coronavirus advisers in recent months despite his lack of public health expertise.

The scientists met with Atlas and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar last week, according to the Washington Post. 

The senior administration official told the Post that the Great Barrington Declaration—which proponents claim has been signed by thousands of doctors and scientists but whose signatories include "transparently fake" names including "Dr. Johnny Bananas" and "Dr. Person Fakename," according to Sky News—simply promotes the approach pushed by Trump for months. 

The president began harshly criticizing lockdown measures almost as soon as they began in March and has pushed for a full reopening of schools and businesses while he and other Republicans have scoffed at the notion of providing robust, long-term economic aid to people and small businesses as other wealthy countries did months ago. 

By forcing much of the population to return to their normal routines amid the pandemic, adherence to the Great Barrington Declaration would keep the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate from having to consider how to provide aid to businesses that are forced to close and people who have to stay at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus. 

Rather than ignoring public health guidance, tweeted Yale epidemiologist and public health activist Gregg Gonsalves, the federal government must focus on making it economically viable for families and small businesses to keep their communities safe. 

The declaration does not include any mention of members of the public wearing face coverings or adhering to social distancing guidelines, nor does it outline how specifically society would segregate elderly and medically vulnerable people from young and relatively healthy people who are urged to go about their regular routines. 

Collins told the Post that the document will likely be embraced as "an idea that someone can wrap themselves in as a justification for skipping wearing masks or social distancing and just doing whatever they damn well please."

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"What I worry about with this is it's being presented as if it's a major alternative view that's held by large numbers of experts in the scientific community. That is not true," Collins told the Post. "This is a fringe component of epidemiology. This is not mainstream science. It's dangerous. It fits into the political views of certain parts of our confused political establishment."

Other public health experts on social media, both in the United Kingdom and the U.S., expressed alarm over the White House's decision to embrace the proposal. 

Gonsalves called into question the primary idea being put forth by the Great Barrington Declaration—that public health experts are calling for a "full-scale" lockdown in which people would be unable to leave their homes for long periods of time.

"We need a vaccine to get to herd immunity without putting millions of lives in jeopardy," Gonsalves tweeted. "Full stop. Stop the bullshit."

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