Story at a glance

  • Herd immunity is a phenomenon where enough of a population has immunity to a disease that a new infection does not lead to an outbreak.
  • It is not appropriate as a response strategy because it is more effective if it is achieved before an outbreak occurs.
  • An adviser to President Trump allegedly supports the approach for the current coronavirus pandemic, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.

Herd immunity is not a response strategy; it’s a phenomenon that may be achieved through infection or vaccination, experts generally agree. But recently, a coronavirus adviser to President Trump released a report in support of using herd immunity as a strategy.

Herd immunity is the point at which enough people in a population are immune to a disease or virus that if a new infection is introduced it will not spread or it will not spread easily. How many people need to be immune depends on the disease and how it is transmitted.

The particular proportion of the population will depend on the disease and how it spreads in the community. For example, airborne infectious diseases may spread more easily than mosquito-borne diseases because the latter relies on the abundance and the bites of mosquitoes to spread the pathogen.

If achieved through infection, it would require a large proportion of a population to get infected, and they would need to be protected against future infection by long lasting immunity. Similarly, if through vaccination, the vaccine must be given to a large proportion of the population, and people need to have reliable immunity for a known period of time.

The reason why many health experts do not recommend herd immunity as a coronavirus response is because we don’t know for sure if people gain immunity after having it. It’s also an imprecise approach that you don’t have control over unless you have an effective vaccine.


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Herd immunity is not a response strategy because it is most effective if it is achieved before a major outbreak, not during one. Health experts also would not recommend it because there is no proven effective treatment or therapeutics available for COVID-19. If public health measures were not in place, aiming for herd immunity would lead to an enormous death toll during this pandemic, according to director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci.

Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, released a report saying to the White House that the country should embrace herd immunity as a strategy to fight the pandemic, according to The Washington Post. Atlas does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, according to the Post. On SiriusXM’s “The Michael Smerconish Program,” Atlas says, "I'm not sure if they fabricated it or someone told them a lie, but there's never been any advocacy of a herd immunity strategy coming from me to the president, to anyone in the administration, to the task force, to anyone I've spoken to."

Government officials in Sweden have walked back claims that they are pursuing a herd immunity strategy for coronavirus response. Atlas released a statement through the White House stating, “There is no policy of the President or this administration of achieving herd immunity. There never has been any such policy recommended to the President or to anyone else from me,” and has not responded to requests for comment, according to the Post.

The White House communications director Alyssa Farah says there has not been a change in the White House’s approach, according to the Post. However, the paper reports that two senior officials and one former official have said, under the condition of anonymity, that the administration has moved in the direction of using a herd immunity approach.

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.

Note: Atlas's quote from SiriusXM’s “The Michael Smerconish Program” was added.


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Published on Sep 01, 2020