The media are hyping fringe herd immunity views to ‘stir false debate and boost profits’

An open letter - dubbed the Great Barrington Declaration - has been condemned as promoting a dangerous minority position on Covid.

Scientists reflecting the near-consensus among public health professionals have sharply criticised an open letter calling for the UK and US to adopt a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, allowing Covid-19 to infect the countries’ young people.

The petition – given the front-page splash of today’s Daily Mail – has been signed by around 60,000 people worldwide, but just a fraction of them are health experts.

Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s SAGE group, said the press was artificially boosting the herd immunity calls to increase their profits:

He added: “The simple point is that it is fine to say ‘we do have people who disagree with the mainstream” – i.e. the World Health Organisation, British Medical Association, the US and European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientific Adviser. “It is quite another to use that to say we have two equivalent camps of scientists to whom we will give equal air time and credence.”

Herd immunity refers to mass resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population, after a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease.

It is almost always secured through vaccination – but some right-wing campaigners and a small number of scientists believe it should be secured prior to a vaccine, through letting the virus spread through the public. The letter comes amid growing libertarian anger to government lockdowns and restrictions.

One epidemiologist described the open letter as “another declaration on ‘herd immunity’ signed by Sunetra Gupta(Oxford), Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford) & Martin Kulldorff(Harvard) who don’t have a single peer reviewed publication on covid-19 epidemiology between them Can we stop platforming pseudoscience?”

Professor Martin McKee, a member of the separate Independent SAGE group of scientists, told Left Foot Forward that the media are over-inflating the herd immunity calls. “They are complete nonsense,” he said.

Here’s his statement in full:

“This proposal is deeply flawed on many levels. First, it is completely impracticable. 18 percent of the British population are over 65. To them, we can add many more younger people who have underlying conditions. Then we will need to isolate those who care for them. Imagine the situation.

“A dutiful 18 year old supports their aged grandparents. We tell that young person that they must isolate. Their friend, who also has grandparents in need of support, ignores them, and is rewarded by being able to live life as normal. What does that do for social solidarity?

“Then there is the idea that herd immunity is possible. The only place that this seems to have been achieved is in some parts of the Amazon, where almost 70 percent of people have been infected, but at a terrible cost. Moreover, we have many outstanding questions about the duration of immunity.

“Then there is the issue of what is being termed long Covid. Although we still have many questions about this condition, it seems that about 10 percent of those infected suffer from it, with little apparent relationship between severity of the initial illness in the presence of long-term complications.

“If we were to allow this virus to spread unchecked through the population, we could have hundreds of thousands of people affected. Those advocating this position have consistently failed to set out the evidence in support of their position. Nor have they attempted to address the practicalities.

“Finally, it is also important to look at their previous predictions, most notably that there was already sufficient immunity in the UK to prevent the second wave that we are now seeing.

“Of course, we need to find ways to protect those who are suffering as a result of the responses to the pandemic. It is unforgivable that the British government has failed to do so.

“However, the best way of doing this is by getting levels of transmission of the virus down to the minimum possible level.”

Other prominent UK health experts branded a herd immunity approach irresponsible – or even impossible.

Dr Gabriel Scally, Visiting Professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol, said: “These ‘scientists’ are totally lacking in humanity. They advocate “survival for the fittest” and virtual imprisonment for the vulnerable and older people. They also ignore Long COVID, and the risk of long term effects of infection which seems harmless now.”

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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