Is the Trump administration about to embrace a herd immunity policy that could make the virus spread ‘everywhere’?

herd immunity for coronavirus
Photo via Muenocchio/Flickr (Public Domain)
  • Advisor Scott Atlas reportedly wants Trump to focus on herd immunity
  • Experts worry that hundreds of thousands of more Americans could die
  • Sweden tried herd immunity for COVID-19; it hasn’t worked

Some officials inside the White House are concerned President Trump may pivot to promoting natural herd immunity—instead of social distancing and other safety guidelines—according to the Washington Post.  Five sources confirmed to the newspaper that the White House’s newest pandemic advisor Scott Atlas has encouraged Trump to adopt a novel approach to confronting COVID-19, where trying to achieve herd immunity for coronavirus is the new goal. 

Herd immunity occurs when most people in a community become immune to a disease so that the virus stops spreading. Herd immunity is achieved either when most of a population contracts the disease and naturally builds up immunity to it or once a vaccine is developed and widely distributed. 

Because the novel coronavirus is a new disease, researchers are still unsure how much of a population has to build resistance against it to create herd immunity. While most researchers believe at least 70% of the community needs to either be infected or vaccinated for herd immunity, the New York Times reported that some experts estimate it could be less than 50%. 

Natural herd immunity is a controversial tactic because encouraging transmission could lead to an increase in COVID-related deaths. By the end of August, 6 million Americans—or 1.8% of the entire population—had contracted COVID-19, and more than 180,000 people had subsequently died.

Given the data collected, experts worry that attempting natural herd immunity could result in millions of American deaths. 

Herd immunity for coronavirus in Sweden hasn’t worked

Sweden is the only country that attempted natural herd immunity, and most health experts agree that the tactic failed. Sweden took the opposite approach of most governments and did not shut down its economy in the spring, although it did close schools and ban gatherings with more than 50 people. 

By the end of August, Sweden had almost 84,000 cases and more than 5,000 deaths, much higher than its Scandinavian counterparts. Denmark had more than 17,000 cases and less than 1,000 deaths, Norway had more than 10,000 cases and less than 300 deaths, and Finland had more than 8,000 cases and less than 400 deaths. According to Newsweek, Sweden is still nowhere near reaching herd immunity. 

Despite the evidence that Sweden’s method failed, Atlas has repeatedly advocated for it in interviews, according to the Post

“When younger, healthier people get the disease, they don’t have a problem with the disease. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult for everyone to acknowledge,” Atlas said in an interview with Fox News in July. “These people getting the infection is not really a problem and in fact, as we said months ago, when you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you’re prolonging the problem because you’re preventing population immunity. Low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem.”

But Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize winner who is a professor at New York University, is worried. “Once it’s out in the community,” he said, “we’ve seen over and over again, it ends up spreading everywhere.”

Atlas’ public statements and his growing influence over Trump has health experts concerned that the administration might grow tired of waiting for a vaccine and change course. However, Atlas released a statement after the Washington Post‘s report that said there is no federal policy on achieving herd immunity. 

White House communications director Alyssa Farah told the newspaper that the White House doesn’t plan to change how it combats the pandemic.

“President Trump is fully focused on defeating the virus through therapeutics and ultimately a vaccine. There is no discussion about changing our strategy,” she said in a statement. “We have initiated an unprecedented effort under Operation Warp Speed to safely bring a vaccine to market in record time—ending this virus through medicine is our top focus.”

But Trump reportedly put pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to fast track a vaccine before it has completed the third phase of clinical trials typically needed for approval, making it seem less likely that the administration plans to change course.  

Sources: Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, CNBC

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