Alex Azar Chats Up 'Herd Immunity' Advocates, Insists Coronavirus Policy Not 'Let God Sort 'Em Out'
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar held a meeting Monday with three scientists who advocate "herd immunity" as a means of controlling the coronavirus pandemic, Politico reports. Big surprise — the meeting was arranged by Donald Trump's very own pandemic whisperer, Scott Atlas, who has talked up "increasing natural immunity" on Fox News, although he denies advocating the strategy to Trump, or that the government is pursuing herd immunity. Just inviting three of its biggest fans to talk to the head of HHS, why would anyone find that worrisome? No big! As Politico notes, it's simply
the latest example of administration officials — including the president himself — seeking out scientists whose contrarian views justify the government's handling of a pandemic that has killed 210,000 people and infected nearly 7.5 million so far in the U.S.
Following the meeting, Azar tweeted that it was simply a terrific discussion with some top experts who see things the right way:
In the conversation with Martin Kulldorff, PhD (Harvard), Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD (Stanford), and Sunetra Gupta,… https://t.co/S3J1zjcEqo— Secretary Alex Azar (@Secretary Alex Azar)1601937371.0
And then in the replies, people pointed out that Scott Atlas is a neuroradiologist with no expertise in public health, infectious disease, or epidemiology, not that a lack of credentials ever stopped an ambitious sycophant from finding power in this administration.
In a nutshell, the three scientists Azar met with — "Harvard medical professor Martin Kulldorff, Stanford medical professor Jay Bhattacharya and Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta" — suggest the best way to deal with the coronavirus pandemic might be to lock down all the elderly and medically vulnerable people, then get as many healthy folks infected with the virus as possible in hopes that they'll then no longer be able to catch or spread it.
That's the concept of "herd immunity," which generally results when a high percentage of people have been vaccinated against an infectious disease. But since there's no vaccine yet, these folks say, let's make it happen "naturally" by getting some necessary portion of the population infected, effectively immunizing them.
The only downside, mainstream medical and public health experts say, is that since the coronavirus can have terrible effects on many otherwise-healthy people, widespread transmission of the disease could result in death or permanent disability for thousands or even millions of people who didn't have any obvious risk factors. Also, we don't yet know whether the antibodies resulting from the disease result in permanent immunity, but let's hope so!
The folks Azar and Atlas met with sure have a positive attitude about more positive cases of COVID-19! On Laura Ingraham's Fox News program, Gupta predicted, "Three months, maybe six is sufficient time for enough immunity to accumulate … that the vulnerable could resume normal lives" — depending on the breaks, and then Nana and Peepaw can come out of the mineshaft, probably.
And talk about scientific respectability!
Bhattacharya co-authored a study with colleagues at Stanford that suggested the coronavirus infection rate was up to 85 percent higher in Silicon Valley than previously estimated, suggesting that the virus was not nearly deadly enough to justify continued lockdowns.
Except, oops, it wasn't peer reviewed, and other researchers pointed out huge problems with the methodology, and when Bhattacharya et al. revised and republished their findings (still not peer-reviewed) two weeks later, they came up with one-third fewer infected people.
Gupta, for her part, opposed lockdown orders in the UK after Boris Johnson's initial flirtation with doing nothing, in the name of building herd immunity, led to huge outbreaks and large numbers of deaths (42,000 so far). In March, she and her colleagues argued that "the death rate or the likelihood of dying from infection was very low." She also told Ingraham we shouldn't bother testing healthy populations for outbreaks, since almost everyone will probably be fine.
And Kulldorff worried in an interview with Jacobin magazine that "Somehow, herd immunity has become a toxic phrase, which is strange, since it is a scientifically proven phenomenon just like gravity," and explained that the only tricky part is
how to get there with the minimum number of casualties. We do not know what percent immunity to the coronavirus is needed to achieve herd immunity, but we do know that if there are many older people in the group that is infected, there will be many deaths. On the other hand, if mostly young people are infected, there will be very few deaths.
Honestly, if people could just be more rational about an acceptable rate of death and permanent lung scarring among young, healthy people, we could get on with our lives.
And yet, there are naysayers, if you can believe like that, like the so-called overwhelming majority of medical and public health experts. Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw disaster response in the Obama administration, said the meeting between Azar and the herd immunity herd was an attempt to "cherry pick credentialed people who happen to agree with the administration's political instincts or political inclinations" in advance of the election, which doesn't at all sound like the sort of thing the highly principled folks in the Trump administration would do. Like, where are the profits to skim? He also noted that since the trio's arguments focus only on deaths from the pandemic, their emphasis is badly skewed and ignores the long-term health effects of the virus on survivors.
Worse, the assumption that we really could just lock away all the most vulnerable people while letting the disease run rampant is, to say the least, questionable:
"If we are just truly trying to obtain herd immunity naturally, I don't think [it] would be possible," said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "We would have too many cases, it would sneak in. The biggest predictor of cases entering into a nursing home for example is what's happening at the community level." [Emphasis added — Dok]
For instance, how tightly would we have to lock down an obese 74-year-old man with heart issues and a propensity to ignore medical advice?
Happily, Azar insists the administration is so totally not pursuing herd immunity, no matter how many herd immunity fans start running things, mostly because they're not going to call it that. In congressional testimony, Azar explained, "Herd immunity is not the strategy of the US government with regard to coronavirus."
Rather, he said, "We may get there, we may get herd slowing-of-transmission as we perhaps have seen in the New York area and other concentrated areas," which is a totally different thing, although as Politico unhelpfully points out, the CDC estimates that in New York City, where the virus had its largest concentrated outbreak so far (keep trying, Florida!), "only about 22 percent of the population has antibodies against the coronavirus."
In general, herd immunity is believed to result when at least 60 to 70 percent of a population has antibodies, and that level is usually achievable only through vaccination — as public health expert William Foege reminded CDC Director Robert Redfield, smallpox was only eradicated in India after the government was persuaded to abandon its strategy of pursuing "natural" herd immunity.
So it sure is a relief the administration isn't trying to make us all sick with a virus that could leave us with permanent health effects, particularly as they pursue a strategy of eliminating Obamacare's protections for people with pre-existing conditions. It sure would be cynical to think they might be trying to boost insurance company profits by making a huge chunk of the population ineligible for coverage! That's just crazy talk, isn't it?
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.