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.”
The first coronavirus vaccine will likely get authorized within months, but that will only be the beginning of what’s likely to be a long, chaotic vaccination process, the New York Times’ Carl Zimmer reports.
The big picture: The first vaccines probably will offer only moderate protection against the virus, meaning we can’t ditch our masks even if we get one. And we probably won’t have a good way to choose between these vaccines once several of them are on the market.
- Some vaccines that are in earlier stages of development today may struggle to cross the finish line, even if they work better than earlier vaccines.
- And some vaccines may be pulled off of the market because they’re unsafe.
Between the lines: Some of this is inherent to the breakneck speed of the vaccination effort, but some of it is a result of how that effort was designed.
- Earlier this year, some government scientists had wanted to test vaccine candidates against each other, instead of testing all of them against a placebo. But these kinds of trials are risky for drug companies, because they show the value of one vaccine against another.
- That information could be useful for patients, but is a business risk for manufacturers.
- “You have to have the total cooperation of the pharmaceutical companies to get involved in a master protocol,” top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told NYT. “That — I don’t know what the right word is — didn’t turn out to be feasible.”
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.