Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday denounced the concept of herd immunity — the notion that if a large enough group of people contract an infection, it will ultimately stop the disease from spreading — calling it “nonsense” during an interview with Yahoo News.
“Anybody who knows anything about epidemiology will tell you that is nonsense and very dangerous,” Fauci said, “because what will happen is that if you do that, by the time you get to herd immunity, you will have killed a lot of people that would have been avoidable.”
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, discussed the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s response to it during a live interview Thursday morning with Yahoo News Editor in Chief Daniel Klaidman and Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff.
The coronavirus has killed more than 216,000 people in the U.S. and infected almost 8 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Now, more than seven months after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Fauci said Thursday that the U.S. is not in a good place.
“We talk about a second wave,” he said. “We’ve never really gotten out of the first wave. If you look at the baseline number of daily infections that we have had over the last several weeks, [it’s] been around 40,000 per day. It’s now gone up to about 50,000 per day. So right away, we have a very unfortunate baseline from which we need to deal.”
President Trump and his administration have been pushing the herd immunity approach as a possible solution to ending the pandemic, the New York Times reported Wednesday. During a call with reporters, two officials who requested anonymity cited a petition called the Great Barrington Declaration, which calls for states to lift coronavirus restrictions for the bulk of American citizens, the Times reported.
When asked about the herd immunity approach, Fauci said that while he agrees with what the declaration says about protecting the vulnerable and not closing down the country, virtually anyone with a solid understanding of epidemiology would disagree with the idea of letting everyone get infected.
“My position is known. Dr. Deborah Birx’s position is known, and Dr. [Robert] Redfield,” he said. “So you have me as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Debbie Birx, as the coordinator and a very experienced infectious disease person, the coordinator of the task force — and you have Bob Redfield, who’s the director of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. All three of us very clearly are against that.”
The White House is reportedly embracing a herd-immunity approach focused on “protecting the elderly and the vulnerable” but experts are calling the plan dangerous, “unethical”, and equivalent to “mass murder”.
The news comes following a petition titled The Great Barrington Declaration, which argued against lockdowns and school and business closures and got almost 500,000 signatures – although some of them were fake.
“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the declaration states, adding, “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. We call this Focused Protection.”
Essentially, herd immunity is when enough people are immune to a disease, like Covid-19, that the disease can’t be transmitted as easily and thus provides indirect protection.
It’s been rumoured that the government has been leaning towards this plan of action for some time now, although this is the first real admission.
In response to today’s news, experts around the world have been voicing their concerns.
And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard experts say herd immunity is not a good idea.
For example, the head of the World Health Organization said Monday that allowing the novel coronavirus to spread in an attempt to reach herd immunity was “simply unethical.”
Similarly, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins also denounced herd immunity as a viable plan.
“What I worry about with this is it’s being presented as if it’s a major alternative view that’s held by large numbers of experts in the scientific community. That is not true. This is a fringe component of epidemiology. This is not mainstream science. It fits into the political views of certain parts of our confused political establishment,” he said in an interview.
As more research comes out, scientists are starting to learn that Covid-19 immunity, even in those who were severely infected, can fade after a few weeks.
This is why we’ve seen cases of reinfection and why many experts are advising against a herd immunity plan.
To put that into context, that means around 197 million people would need to be infected in America. And assuming that the Covid-19 fatality rate is somewhere between 0.5% and 1%, based on numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1 million people would die – at minimum.
William Haseltine, Chair and President of ACCESS Health International, told CNN “herd immunity is another word for mass murder. We are looking at two to six million Americans dead – not just this year but every year.”
“This is an unmitigated disaster for our country – to have people at the highest levels of our government countermanding our best public health officials. We know this epidemic can be put under control. Other countries have done it. We are doing the opposite.”
Although other wealthy countries have higher overall coronavirus mortality rates than the United States, the U.S. death rate since May is unrivaled among its peers, according to a new study published in JAMA.
Between the lines: After the first brutal wave of outbreaks, other countries did much better than the U.S. at learning from their mistakes and preventing more of their population from dying.
Why it matters: “If the U.S. had comparable death rates with most high-mortality countries beginning May 10, it would have had 44,210 to 104,177 fewer deaths,” the authors conclude.
- Excess deaths have followed a similar pattern: The hardest-hit European countries had similar or higher rates of excess deaths of all causes to the U.S. early on, but these fell much lower than the America did after the first wave.
Yes, but: Death rates are not static, as this study proves, and outbreaks in several European countries have taken a turn for the worse lately.
An otherwise healthy 25-year-old Nevada man is the first American confirmed to have caught COVID-19 twice, with the second infection worse than the first.
He has recovered, but his case raises questions about how long people are protected after being infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease, and potentially how protective a vaccine might be.
“It’s a yellow caution light,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, who was not involved in the research.
Respiratory infections like COVID-19 don’t provide lifelong immunity like a measles infection. So, Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he’s not at all surprised people could get infected twice with the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
It’s too soon to know whether the man from Washoe County, Nevada, who had no known health problems other than his double infection, was highly unusual or if many people could easily get infected more than once with SARS-CoV-2, Schaffner said.
“There’s hardly an infectious disease doctor in the country who hasn’t encountered a patient who thinks they’ve had a second infection,” he said. “Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. There are lots of respiratory infections out there.”
How rare is he?
There have been at least 22 documented cases of reinfection worldwide since the start of the pandemic, but it’s unclear how many cases there have actually been, and how common it may be among people who don’t even know they’re infected.
“It could be a one in a million event, we don’t know,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who wrote a commentary with the study.
With millions of people infected, it’s hard to know if case studies like the new one represent very rare events or the tip of an iceberg, she said. “It’s possible that the vast majority of people are completely protected from reinfection, but we’re not measuring them, because they’re not coming to the hospital.”
Also, many people don’t know they are infected the first time, so it’s hard to say whether they’re getting re-infected.
In one of the recent cases, a Hong Kong man only knew he was reinfected because it was caught during a routine screening when he returned from outside the country, months after he had cleared an infection and tested negative.
One reason there may not be more documented cases of reinfection: It’s tough to prove, said Mark Pandori, a pathologist at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, and senior author on the new study.
His team coordinated early in the pandemic with members of the Washoe County Health District to look for repeat infections. They had the benefit of sequencing equipment on campus, as well as microbiologists, he said. And they got lucky finding someone who had been tested both times he was infected and cleared in between.
Why his infection was worse the second time remains unclear, said Pandori, director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory. “I can’t tell you if it tells us anything in particular about the biology of this virus.”
The man caught a slightly different version of the virus the second time, according a genetic analysis of the man’s infections. It’s possible the second version was more dangerous, though there is no evidence of that, or that it was just different enough that his body didn’t recognize it, the paper said.
Implications for vaccination
Iwasaki said the study raises questions about how long immunity lasts after a natural infection. Protection with a vaccine is likely to be quite different, she said.
“Vaccines can be designed to induce much higher levels of antibody and much longer lasting immunity,” she said. Just because the natural infection doesn’t give you protection doesn’t mean the vaccines cannot. It’s a separate issue.”
Offit, also a vaccine expert at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said he expects protection from vaccines will likely last at least a year or two.
The protection provided by infection or vaccination isn’t 100% perfect until the day it disappears completely, he said. Instead, protection fades gradually, so someone exposed to a huge dose of the virus might get re-infected within months, while others could be protected for years, Offit said.
It’s also possible the Nevada man has an undiagnosed problem with his immune system. “He probably should be seen by an immunologist,” Offit said.
The length of time an infection will be protective remains one of the key open questions about the virus.
Infected twice, two months apart
The Nevada man, considered an essential worker, started feeling ill in late March, with a sore throat, cough, headache, nausea and diarrhea. His workplace had been hit with an outbreak early in the pandemic, before safety measures like masks could be put in place, said Heather Kerwin, senior epidemiologist at the Washoe County Health District and a co-author on the paper.
He went for testing on April 18 and his infection with the coronavirus was confirmed.
On April 27, he reported his symptoms had all resolved and he felt fine, but at the time, employees were required to test negative for COVID-19 twice before they would be allowed back to work, Kerwin said. So he remained isolated at home.
A month later, he began feeling poorly again. At the same time, there was an outbreak where one of his parent’s, also an essential worker, was employed, Kerwin said.
On May 31, he went to an urgent care center, reporting fever, headache, dizziness, cough, nausea and diarrhea. On June 5, he went to see a doctor who found his oxygen levels dangerously low and had him hospitalized. Again, the man tested positive for the virus, even though he still had antibodies to the virus in his bloodstream, Kerwin said.
Genetic differences between the viruses responsible for each of his infections suggested he was infected two separate times. The virus doesn’t mutate quickly enough within a single person to explain the differences between the two infections, the researchers found.
A parent living with the man also caught COVID-19 and was diagnosed on June 5.
The paper reports it’s possible the man was reinfected because he was exposed to a higher dose of the virus the second time, perhaps from the family member.
His cough lingered and he suffered from shortness of breath and mental fog, and was on oxygen for six weeks after the second infection, Kerwin said. He has now fully recovered.
Reinfections imply so-called herd immunity cannot be obtained just through natural infection. If natural infection protects for only a few months, then it will be impossible for enough people to be protected simultaneously to reach herd immunity.
The moral of the case study, said co-author Pandori, is even people who already have been sick with COVID-19 need to protect themselves by wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings, washing hands frequently and maintaining social distance.
“You’re not invulnerable to this,” Pandori said. “In fact, you could get it worse the second time.”
For its first 208 years, the New England Journal of Medicine has never endorsed a political candidate. But this week the journal published an editorial outlining its political position in the upcoming Presidential election, signed unanimously by all editors who are US citizens.
The editors did not explicitly endorse former Vice President Biden, but rather offered a scathing condemnation of the current administration’s performance during the COVID pandemic: “Reasonable people will certainly disagree about the many political positions taken by candidates.
But truth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.” (Formally endorsing Biden last month, Scientific American also made the first political endorsement in its 175-year history.)
Much of the media coverage of the NEJM statement has centered on the question of whether medicine should involve itself in politics, or “live above it”.
Medicine has been drawn into political disputes before, but now the nature of the involvement has changed. In the past, debates largely centered around regulation, payment or policy—but now the science itself has become a fundamentally political issue.
The very nature of the coronavirus has become a matter of political belief, not just an indisputable scientific fact.
Public trust in both scientific institutions and the government, and their ability to work together, has been damaged. We fear this will lead to poorer health outcomes regardless of who wins the upcoming election.
The COVID-19 pandemic is rife with scientific and medical uncertainty, including debates about the ethics of using experimental treatments.
The big picture: As the global pandemic continues, the tension between providing the best available care for patients and performing trials to determine whether that care is effective risks complicating the medical response.
The big question: Is it unethical to withhold a possible treatment from someone who instead receives a placebo, or to continue to administer that treatment without having collected data on whether it works?
Driving the news: President Trump received an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail via expanded access or “compassionate use,” which allows someone to access a treatment outside of a clinical trial before it is approved, provided their doctor, the drug company and the FDA agree.
- Experts say his subsequent claims of the treatment being a cure risks reducing enrollment in clinical trials, flooding companies with requests for access to a limited number of doses and creating false hope for patients.
- And the president’s treatment raised questions about fairness — would other COVID-19 patients have similar access?
- “It’s important that we not say the president got access to a beneficial experimental intervention because we don’t know if it is beneficial or if there are adverse events associated with it,“ says Alex John London, director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
He and other ethicists say the president’s treatment highlights a broader question about the ethical obligation doctors have to the science needed to determine if those treatments are effective.
Between the lines: Offering patients experimental COVID-19 drugs via emergency use authorizations, expanded access programs and compassionate use can slow needed clinical trials.
- Researchers have struggled to enroll people in clinical trials in which they may receive a placebo if patients can access a drug directly.
- One example: “There’s been some hiccups with the expanded access use for convalescent plasma, because it was something that precluded people from enrolling in a randomized control trial, so it took longer, and we still don’t quite know how well convalescent plasma works,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
More than 100,000 COVID-19 patients at almost 2,800 U.S. hospitals received convalescent plasma from people who survived the virus and developed antibodies to it.
- “It’s easy for people to say you enrolled 100,000 people, there should have been a trial. But a small number of those 2,800 hospitals would have been capable of doing those trials,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner, who leads the program.
- There are now smaller trials taking place to answer questions about the effectiveness of plasma in treating the disease in different stages.
- But if this happens again, Joyner says programs at academic medical centers should be peeled off earlier to form clinical trials run in parallel.
The gold standard for determining whether a treatment works is through randomized controlled trials in which people are randomly assigned to receive a treatment or to be in a control group.
- In the uncertainty and urgency of a pandemic, some physicians argue randomizing people to receive a placebo goes against physicians’ ethics and that it is better to do something to help patients than do nothing.
- “That’s a false dichotomy because the question is, what should we do?” says London.
From a doctor’s perspective, it’s important to weigh the collective value of theearly drug data and the individual needs of the patient, Adalja says.
- “I do think you have to be extra careful when you’re thinking about drugs that you don’t have strong randomized control trial data for, or the data is incomplete or inconclusive,” he adds.
- “What people have to ask themselves is what constitutes evidence or proof and where do you want to make the bets in a pandemic?” says Joyner.
- “There is a moral, legal and public health obligation to do those trials before people use those products,” says Alison Bateman-House, a professor of medical ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine who co-chairs an international working group on pre-approval access to treatments.
- She says she understands the emotional pull on doctors to help patients whose health is quickly deteriorating, “but it is not evidence-based medicine.”
“There is no ethical obligation to give anyone an unproven substance.”
— Alison Bateman-House, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
In a forthcoming paper, London argues that when medical professionals don’t have the knowledge they need to treat patients, it is their responsibility “to band together and run studies to get evidence to discharge [their] very ancient medical obligation.”
- Medical ethics should be updated to include a responsibility to learn in the face of uncertainty, says London, who was part of a committee that called for research to be incorporated into the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
- The U.K.’s large randomized RECOVERY trial is based in part on the Ebola experience, says London. “Because of it, we know dexamethasone is effective and hydroxychloroquine is not.”
What to watch: How the FDA’s handling of treatments during the pandemic influences other drugs and diseases once the pandemic ends.
The bottom line: “Medicine doesn’t have a good handle on uncertainty, and that is a problem,” says London.
The D.C. Health Department is trying to jump-start contact tracing efforts around the White House’s coronavirus outbreak. Tracing has been inadequate so far even as cases spread deeper into the city, Axios’ Marisa Fernandez writes.
The big picture: The White House has decided not to move forward with recommended public health protocols of contact tracing and testing since President Trump tested positive for the virus.
The state of play: Tracing has been done for people who had direct contact with Trump, White House spokesman Judd Deere told the Washington Post.
- Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends tracking the hundreds of people who were at the event.
On Capitol Hill, there’s also no formalized contact tracing program in place, even as lawmakers themselves test positive.
- Two infected staffers in Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-Colo.) office were told to not disclose to roommates they may have been exposed, WSJ reports.
The bottom line: The White House’s refusal to contact trace is “a missed opportunity to prevent additional spread,” Emily Wroe, a co-leader of a contact-tracing team at Partners in Health, told Nature.