Strategy calling for spread of coronavirus among young could leave millions dead, say experts

Experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are criticizing a proposed strategy that would attempt to hasten herd immunity to the coronavirus by allowing it to spread freely among healthy young people while attempting to keep more vulnerable Americans from getting infected. The experts say that the strategy could result in hundreds of thousands or even millions more deaths, because there would be no way to adequately protect those who are vulnerable.

The strategy, which its proponents call “focused protection,” is reportedly of interest to the White House. A group of scientists who are backing the idea met recently with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who is advising President Trump on the pandemic.

Those who favor the strategy want to move more aggressively in reopening the economy while pulling back on widespread testing and other public health measures, according to an October 6, 2020 article in Politico. They question the deadliness of the virus and say that if mostly young people are infected, there will be few deaths.

But most public health experts, including those at Harvard Chan, disagree strongly with these ideas. Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology and a faculty member in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics (CCDD), told Politico, “If we are just truly trying to obtain herd immunity naturally, I don’t think [protecting the vulnerable] would be possible. We would have too many cases, it would sneak in.”

In an October 6 article in The Guardian, William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology, agreed that it would be all but impossible to try to protect large swaths of the population while letting the virus spread. He added that an uncontrolled outbreak among young and healthy people would still result in many of them getting sick, possibly with long-term medical issues. And in an October 7 Guardian article, Hanage likened the strategy of allowing the coronavirus to spread to trying to protect antiques in a house fire by putting them all in one room and standing guard with a fire extinguisher—but fanning the flames at the same time.

Howard Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership, noted in an October 14 CNN article that Sweden’s attempt to achieve herd immunity by allowing it to spread “has been woefully unsuccessful and is definitely not a strategy we should seek to replicate in the United States.”

“Without a vaccine … this strategy risks the deaths of millions of Americans,” according to an October 14 op-ed in the Washington Post co-authored by Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and CCDD director. The op-ed called the strategy “wishful thinking” and noted that “no one has so far devised an approach to protecting the vulnerable that really works, especially when the infection is ranging in society at large.”

Lipsitch and Hanage were also co-authors of an October 15 open letter to The Lancet contending that the notion of achieving herd immunity in low-risk populations while protecting the vulnerable “is a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.”

Read the Politico article: Trump advisers consult scientists pushing disputed herd immunity strategy

Read the Guardian articles: Scientists call for Covid herd immunity strategy for young; Why herd immunity strategy is regarded as fringe viewpoint

Read the CNN article: A herd immunity strategy to fight the pandemic can be ‘dangerous,’ experts say. Here’s why

Read the Washington Post op-ed: Trump wants to try for herd immunity. Without a vaccine, it could kill millions.

Read the Lancet letter: Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now