Saturday, October 17, 2020

Great Barrington Declaration not a great solution if you are one of the millions that will die

I wonder who actually are the 10,000 or so "medical and public health scientists" and the nearly 28,000 "medical practitioners" who have signed on to the rather grandly-named "Great Barrington Declaration", an American apologia for the otherwise discredited idea of COVID-19 herd immunity? 

The Great Barrington Declaration, spearheaded by three American and British epidemiologists, essentially calls for an end to lockdown and a return to normal life, while somehow protecting the "vulnerable". (A response refuting the Declaration, known as the John Snow Memorandum, was issued by a group of equally eminent physicians and epidemiologists a few days later.)

Herd immunity, or "focused protection" as proponents have tried to rebrand it in this Declaration, is definitely a thing - it's the way mass immunization programs work - but it has never been used with a live disease before. And to suggest that we should be deliberately exposing all and sundry to a disease as potentially debilitating and/or fatal as this coronavirus is surely the height of irreponsibility and folly. 

The Trump campaign has, of course, latched onto it because it fits their political narrative (you know, masks are an infringement on our liberty, etc). Top US infectious diseases doctor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the other hand, calls it "total nonsense". Many other scientists have been much less circumspect in their language ("callous dangerous nonsense" and "fringe perspective" being anong the more polite ones).

Well over a million people worldwide have already died from the virus (not to mention the chronic health problems that afflict many of those who have been infected but not died), including about 209,000 in the USA out of some 8 million positive cases. These cases represent about 2.5% of the total US population. To achieve herd immunity, most health scientists agree that around 65%-75% of the population would need to be infected. Extrapolating from the current death rate, this would lead to at least 5½ million deaths in the USA (not to mention completely overwhelming the healthcare system), which seems to me like a pretty steep price to pay.

This would also take many months, and would probably not be achieved until about the same time a vaccine would be becoming available. So, millions of additional deaths for no particular time advantage? Let me think about that ... er, no, thank you!

Add to that the fact that, with this particular virus, being infected once does not necessary preclude being infected again later, and it all starts to seem like a pretty bad idea. Immunity seems to last for a few months, maximum, and catching it once does not mean that you can't catch it again. Plus, only an estimated one in ten of infected people actually develop antibodies anyway. This is not a typical virus.

So, all in all, based on the science that we know, let alone the science that we don't, herd immunity is really not going to work for COVID-19, and any attempt to pursue it will lead to literally millions of deaths in the USA alone. 

One of the Declaration's co-authors used a rather telling explanation: "We will reach herd immunity sooner or later, just as an airplane will reach the ground one way or another". Well, yes, either intact or in little pieces. Nevertheless, it seems that tens of thousands of American doctors and health scientists approve of this remedy. Is this their idea of tough love, or might it be cynical right-wing politics at play?

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