This is based on lazy and credulous reporting of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, which is a product of a right-wing libertarian economic think tank and has little to do with science.
Writing about rubbish science reporting has become a recurring theme for me, especially when the BBC politicises science stories with apparently zero editorial oversight, or in this case gullibly repeating US libertarian propaganda as a science story.
On this story no one is ‘following the money’ and looking at the organisation behind the story, or even critically evaluating the science. They’re reporting it as a political story and ignoring the real one. More on that later.
Let’s do the science first. The American Institute for Economic Research – who authored the ‘declaration’ – is proposing ‘focused protection‘ for the elderly and vulnerable to allow the rest of society to return to normal life and build up herd immunity.
If you’ve missed the ‘declaration’, please allow me to summarise it for you:
Utter, Utter Bollocks.
Great Barrington, where the outfit behind this nonsense is based, is a well-to-do town in western Massachusetts that has had fewer than five cases of COVID-19 and an average daily incidence rate per 100,000 of zero. So an ideal location to propose a strategy that would cause countless unnecessary deaths and untold misery.
The crux of their argument is that lockdown policies have significant adverse effects on other health outcomes and on the economy, so we should be shielding the vulnerable from infection while letting the virus rip through everyone else who will likely have a mild disease. Which sounds superficially plausible.
Yes, lockdowns do have those effects on healthcare outcomes and the economy. But the thing is we haven’t been in a lockdown like that since mid-June, a point that seems to be lost on these fuckwits.
It is also likely that any future national or local interventions will be lighter than the full one we saw in the UK last spring, mainly because we know more about the virus.
The declaration offers no evidence. It is silent on the multiple other targeted interventions that reduce transmission such as mask-wearing, distancing and other, proven containment strategies. Apparently we just need:
“Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick”
…which demonstrates that the three principal signatories – all of whom list expertise in infectious disease in their biogs – do not have a fucking Scooby how COVID-19 is actually transmitted or were pissed when they agreed to put their names to this.
It doesn’t define what ‘vulnerable’ looks like. In fact it’s quite difficult to fully identify vulnerable individuals, so how the fuckitty fuck do they propose we isolate them? It’s quite simply “fuck the poor, fuck the old, fuck the sick, fuck the infirm, fuck the BAME community, my shares have gone down and you can’t tell me what to do” libertarian, small government, maximum freedom, fuck everyone else crap we’ve come to expect from US right wing libertarian.
But it’s not just that it’s bollocks. Which it is, but it’s suggesting science is divided on this. Which is right out of the Big Tobacco playbook on the link between tobacco and cancer, a strategy copied by the oil industry and others with a dog in the fight on anthropogenic climate change.
Science time. So why won’t herd immunity work for COVID-19?
Herd immunity occurs when a large proportion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease. This means the virus has difficulty finding susceptible hosts and so the spread of disease from person to person is halted. As a result, the whole community becomes protected — not just those who are immune.
Vaccines are the route to this; in the past large waves of infection would pass through communities so you’d get smaller outbreaks most years and epidemics other years. Which is similar, but it’s not herd immunity – it’s just the size of the wave year-on-year.
The level of immunity in the herd required to be protective varies from disease to disease and largely depends on how contagious it is, but figures are generally between 50% and >90%. I’ve seen modelling suggesting it could be lower for COVID but I’m not convinced. This is a very contagious virus so basic virology suggests it’s more likely to be at the higher end.
But it’s complex; percentages quoted relate to populations and herd immunity breaks down in clusters – often when a bunch of parents talking shit in the playground ‘do their research‘ on Google and all of a sudden vaccine-preventable illnesses are resurgent in a district. Remember Google is neither a university nor a research lab and no, your 1,000 hours on Pornhub don’t qualify you to do a pelvic exam either.
The Immunological Argument
“As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity.”
Yes, but only if getting whatever it is confers long-term immunity. So the premise of this argument is bollocks because we now know the immunity conferred by getting COVID-19 is transient.
There are many studies now showing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 start to fade a few months after having COVID-19. Granted, there are T-cells too which might last longer but it’s not looking good for slam-dunk long-term immunity on this one. Which means it’s not looking good for herd immunity either: before enough of the herd has become immune in order to prevent spread, immunity will likely be waning in those exposed early on.
So the most charitable description of their proposal is wishful thinking. But fuck charity, this is dangerous libertarian arse-hattery that is deeply flawed, not just scientifically but logistically and ethically too.
The Mathematical Argument
At the time of writing here in the UK we’ve seen over 540,000 confirmed cases and nearly 43,000 confirmed deaths. If we look at infection rates (as measured by people who have antibodies against COVID-19) it varies regionally – 18% around London, the mid-teens in parts of the Grim North and the Midlands and 5% or less in other places. Let’s say nationally it’s 10%. And let’s make a VERY stretchy assumption that antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 give a degree of long-term immunity.
So, in order to reach the mythical 50% level without a vaccine that’s another 220,000 deaths, 2.7m cases and over 700,000 hospital admissions. And there are 101,255 general and acute beds in the NHS. If – as is likely – we need immunity in more than 50% those numbers go up, obviously.
It’s important to note these are crude numbers. The fact is R is an average. Populations are not homogenous biologically or socially. Many will not pass it on at all, some will pass it on to many which makes these calculations challenging but it’s clear that the human cost of trying to attain something that doesn’t exist will be considerable.
Anyway, the US numbers follow the same path, they’re just bigger. The herd immunity strategy is described in the declaration as:
The most compassionate approach
Compassionate? Fucking genocide, more like. And that’s just to get to 50%. Is that a price of worth paying just to prove herd immunity is a bust?
More Reasons Barrington is Bollocks
There is the Appeal to Popularity logical fallacy going on – at the time of writing this worthless piece of shit ‘declaration’ has garnered nearly 125,000 signatures from what the BBC describes as “thousands of scientists and health experts”
This is also Utter, Utter Bollocks. Anyone with a computer can sign it. And death is no barrier – UK GP and serial killer Harold Shipman has signed it three times and the bastard hanged himself in prison in 2004.
Let’s briefly look at the larger flaws…
“COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza”
Estimated global flu deaths in really bad year are around 600,000.
CONFIRMED COVID-19 deaths are over a million in less than a year WITH THE ENTIRE FUCKING PLANET ON LOCKDOWN.
COVID is now the third leading cause of death in the US, surpassing stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
It’s also worth pointing out that with flu we do indeed vaccinate the vulnerable such as the elderly and primary school children who might come in to contact with them – because we’ve got a fucking vaccine. It’s no 100% protective but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% shit. Far from it.
And if they do get flu we’ve got zanamivir and oseltamivir (which does work) – but we don’t have any of this for COVID so there is no route to the ‘focused protection’ of this amorphous ‘vulnerable’ group they can’t even be arsed to even attempt to identify.
“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal“
So what about the BAME community, for example. The whole notion of excluding any group for any reason is riven with ethical issues (as well as logistical ones) and, let’s face it, the USA doesn’t exactly have a brilliant track record on segregation…
This proposal fails on three basic levels.
It looks like herd immunity will be (at best) transient as herd immunity only really works where you get lasting protection from reinfection. This may end up as being an organism that keeps turning up in waves. Like the flu. Our best hope remains with the vaccines now in trial.
They only talk about risk of death. What about other comorbidities? And what about ‘long COVID’? Plenty of people who had a ‘mild’ infection are still suffering months later.
Sweden. Fucking Sweden. They did not pursue herd immunity. They talked about it a lot but still did a bunch of stuff – banned gatherings of over 50 people, cinema, theatre. But you don’t see many masks. And despite their lower population density they still had nearly 6,000 deaths, half of them in care homes. Basically they sacrificed the elderly.
Incidentally, Sweden has a population of about 10 million. So that’s 60 deaths per 100,000 population – or about the same rate as the shitshow-in-a-dumpster-fire the Tangerine Shitgibbon is presiding over. Remember that the next time someone brings up Sweden.
Countries where societal restrictions combined with effective testing and tracing have seen the best results. Fact.
This proposal is so hideously ill-conceived the cynic in me is certain it’ll be US or UK policy by the time I publish this. But there’s something more sinister, and not just the parallels with tobacco and oil companies insinuating – as they did successfully – that the science is divided and can therefore be ignored.
The ‘think tank‘ behind this horseshit aims to promote individual sovereignty, limited government, and “a society based on property rights and open markets“. So this isn’t about epidemiology. It’s ideology posing as science.
We are dealing with a disease that disproportionately affects the old, the sick and the deprived – so fuck them, they aren’t economically productive anyway, it’s a price worth paying to sustain the prosperity of others. Dominic Cummings rehearsed this argument and found out people actually are quite fond of their grannies.
I fully accept this isn’t just a public health matter, there are multiple social, economic and political overlays too. It’s complicated.
And no, I don’t have the answers. However I’m pretty sure any strategy based on flawed epidemiology (that not just won’t work – it can’t work) but that has the effect of sacrificing the old (as they did in Sweden), the infirm and other at-risk groups. We’ve seen plenty of venal incompetence perpetrated by our governments. But this is callousness on another level.
This is a thoroughly nasty piece of work written by a politically-motivated body and – as ever – credulously regurgitated by the media. It’s science by press release. Who needs Putin to put out fake news when the media wouldn’t recognise the real story if it slapped them around, pissed on them and called them Betty…