Great Barrington Coauthor Backs Off Strict Reliance on Herd Immunity

Alicia Ault

November 09, 2020

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A coauthor of the Great Barrington Declaration says that he and colleagues have never argued against using mitigation strategies to keep COVID-19 from spreading, and that critics have mischaracterized the document as a "let it rip" strategy.

Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, a professor and public health policy expert in infectious diseases at Stanford University in California, spoke on a JAMA Livestream debate on November 6. Marc Lipsitch, MD, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, represented the 6900 signatories of the John Snow Memorandum, a rebuttal to the Great Barrington document.

The Great Barrington approach of "Focused Protection" advocates isolation and protection of people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 while avoiding what they characterize as lockdowns. "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," the document reads.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and its HIV Medicine Association denounced the declaration, as reported by Medscape Medical News, and the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the proposal "unethical." But the idea has gained some traction at the White House, where Coronavirus Task Force Member and Stanford professor Scott Atlas, MD, has been advising President Donald J. Trump.

On the JAMA debate, Bhattacharya said, "I think all of the mitigation measures are really important," listing social distancing, hand washing, and masks when distancing is not possible as chief among those strategies for the less vulnerable. "I don't want to create infections intentionally, but I want us to allow people to go back to their lives as best they can, understanding of the risks they are taking when they do it," he said, claiming that 99.95% of the population will survive infection.

"The harmful lockdowns are worse for many, many people," Bhattacharya said.

"I think Jay is moving towards a middle ground which is not really what the Great Barrington Declaration seems to promote," countered Lipsitch. The declaration does not say use masks or social distance, he said. "It just says we need to go back to a normal life." 

Bhattacharya's statements to JAMA mean that "maybe we are approaching some common ground," Lipsitch said.

Definition of a Lockdown

Both men were asked to give their definition of a "lockdown." To Lipsitch, it means people are not allowed out except for essential services and that most businesses are closed, with exceptions for those deemed essential.

Bhattacharya, however, said he views that as a quarantine. Lockdowns "are what we're currently doing," he said. Schools, churches, businesses, and arts and culture organizations are shuttered, and "almost every aspect of society is restricted in some way," Bhattacharya said.

He blamed these lockdowns for most of the excess deaths over and above the COVID-19 deaths and said they had failed to control the pandemic.

Lipsitch said that "it feels to me that Jay is describing as lockdown everything that causes harm, even when it's not locked down." He noted that the country was truly closed down for 2 months or so in the spring.

"All of these harms I agree are real," said Lipsitch. "But they are because the normal life of our society is being interfered with by viral transmission and by people's inability to live their normal lives."

Closures and lockdowns are essential to delaying cases and deaths, said Lipsitch. "A case today is worse than a case tomorrow and a lot worse than a case 6 months from now," he said, noting that a vaccine or improved therapeutics could evolve.

"Delay is not nothing," Lipsitch added. "It's actually the goal as I see it, and as the John Snow memo says, we want to keep the virus under control in such a way as that the vulnerable people are not at risk."

He predicted that cases will continue to grow exponentially because the nation is "not even close to herd immunity." And, if intensive care units fill up, "there will be a responsive lockdown," he said, adding that he did not endorse that as a general matter or favor it as a default position.

Bhattacharya claimed that Sweden has tallied only 1800 excess deaths since the pandemic began. "That's lockdown harm avoided," he said, advocating a similar strategy for the United States. But, infections have been on the rise in Sweden, and the nation has a higher COVID-19 death rate — with 6000 deaths — than other Nordic countries.

"If we keep this policy of lockdown we will have the same kind of outcomes we've already had — high excess deaths and sort of indifferent control of COVID," Bhattacharya said.

"We're still going to have misery and death going forward until we reach a point where there's sufficient immunity either though a vaccine or through natural infection," he said.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including, The New York Times, and Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault. 

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