On Monday, as President Donald Trump was urging the world not to fear the virus he was newly infected with, top health officials of his were meeting with a trio of scientists pushing the same belief.
Their highly controversial recommendation to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and coronavirus task force adviser Scott Atlas: Only “vulnerable” people should be protected from the virus. It should be allowed to spread among everyone else until they achieve “herd” immunity, a tipping point at which the virus fizzles out because enough people are immune.
According to many health experts who weren’t in the room, this is a dangerous proposal to unleash on a population that, by and large, is still susceptible to infection. Aiming for herd immunity would needlessly sicken and kill countless people on top of the more than 210,000 Americans who have already died. It’s also impractical: Many scientists agree that it would be enormously difficult to reach herd immunity without an effective and widely used vaccine.
Nevertheless, the three epidemiologists — Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, and Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University — have been broadcasting their ideas far and wide. Now they’re finding a warm reception at the highest levels of decision-making in the US.
The same day as their meeting with Azar and Atlas, they laid out their argument for what they dubbed “focused protection” in an open letter on a website newly registered to a libertarian think tank, the American Institute for Economic Research. And they touted the plan on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.
“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,” read the letter, called the Great Barrington Declaration, which by Friday had been signed by an additional 5,900-plus self-identified “medical and public health scientists.” The letter called for bringing back in-person teaching, reopening restaurants and businesses, and resuming large gatherings like concerts and sport events, citing “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies.”
For months, some of the letter’s authors and a small contingent of other scientists, who also believe that the coronavirus is not deadly enough to justify lockdowns, have been writing op-eds and talking to policymakers across the country. As early as March, a group of them, including Bhattacharya, tried to meet with Trump to warn him against lockdown policies that had not yet even started in most of the US.
At this week’s meeting in Washington, DC, Azar appeared to like what he had heard, as first reported by the Hill. “We heard strong reinforcement of the Trump Administration’s strategy of aggressively protecting the vulnerable while opening schools and the workplace,” he wrote on Twitter.
Also there was Atlas, a Stanford neuroradiologist whose speciality is not infectious diseases or epidemiology. He was the scientists’ “point of contact” for the meeting, according to Politico.
“I do not advocate any ‘strategy’ of achieving herd immunity and have never advised the president to pursue that,” Atlas told BuzzFeed News by email. “To say that was a strategy even suggested at our meeting would be a gross misinterpretation.” He has repeatedly advocated for allowing the virus to spread among healthy people in order to achieve widespread immunity.
“All of my policy recommendations are directly backed by the science, and they are in line with what many of the world’s top infectious disease scientists advise,” he wrote, referencing a group of scientists that included Bhattacharya, Kulldorff, and Gupta.
But Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist who specializes in infectious diseases at Yale School of Public Health, said the scientists’ proposal is not out of place with what Trump and his administration are already doing to undermine government scientists, cast doubt on masks and other public health interventions, and generally fail to control a pandemic that has infected more than 7 million Americans.
“It isn’t that they’re reorienting their strategy toward herd immunity — it’s been that all along,” Gonsalves told BuzzFeed News, calling the Great Barrington Declaration “slightly grotesque” and “shocking.” “It goes really, really far in terms of reopening all the institutions that we’ve been trying to manage outbreaks in,” he said. “They go way out on a limb.”
“This claim is quite honestly a fantasy.”
Kulldorff said they discussed their proposal with Azar and Atlas for under an hour. But he insisted that he and his colleagues were not pushing a herd immunity “strategy.”
“No matter what strategy is used, we will reach herd immunity sooner or later, just as an airplane will reach the ground one way or another,” Kulldorff said by email. “The key is to minimize the number of death[s] until we reach herd immunity, and that is what the Great Barrington Declaration is about.”
Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease epidemiologist and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, vehemently disagreed with the scientists’ vision.
“Based on simple math and past experiences and outbreaks, and emerging evidence from this ongoing pandemic, this claim is quite honestly a fantasy,” she said.
These scientists, and Bhattacharya in particular, have repeatedly claimed that their proposals are driven by science, not politics.
“It’s something to be regretted that attempts at scientific knowledge, acquiring that knowledge, would become politicized,” the Stanford professor of medicine said in a video interview with the site UnHerd about the group’s petition.
Nevertheless, from the start of the pandemic, he and others have sought to convince politicians to adopt strategies that run counter to those promoted by mainstream infectious disease and public health experts.
In late March, days after the first states began adopting stay-at-home policies, a group of scientists, including Bhattacharya, sent the White House a request to meet with Trump to warn him about the dangers of lockdowns, as BuzzFeed News reported. That effort, which did not result in a meeting, was led by Bhattacharya’s Stanford colleague, epidemiologist John Ioannidis.
In mid-April, Bhattacharya, Ioannidis, and other Stanford faculty members released a study of the coronavirus’s prevalence in Santa Clara County, California. Their non-peer-reviewed preprint reported that the virus was more widespread than previously thought, which would make the fatality rate very low. But the study’s statistical reasoning and other problems were torn apart by outside researchers.
Still, the authors promoted the message that the virus was not that deadly — that it was even, according to some of them, on par with the flu. In one of several Fox News appearances, Bhattacharya spoke alongside the founder of JetBlue, David Neeleman, a vocal lockdown opponent who did not disclose that he was also helping fund the Stanford study.
In May, a whistleblower complaint filed to Stanford alleged that Neeleman had interfered with aspects of the study. Neeleman denied that he influenced the science in any way.
The university launched an investigation, telling BuzzFeed News at the time that “the integrity of Stanford Medicine’s research is core to our mission” and that it took the concerns “extremely seriously.” Nearly five months later, Stanford spokesperson Julie Greicius declined to give any update on its findings.
Based on dozens of studies from around the world, other scientists have calculated that the virus is significantly deadlier than the flu. Meanwhile, the original paper remains unpublished.
Nevertheless, Bhattacharya and others have continued to drive home a message to politicians: that the pandemic is not that big a threat for most people, and shutdowns — whether school closures, business closures, or stay-at-home policies — do more harm than good.
In May, Ioannidis testified in favor of lifting lockdowns in a Senate committee hearing. And Bhattacharya told Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, that it was safe to reopen youth baseball and softball leagues.
That same month, Bhattacharya and a group of colleagues argued in front of the Arizona House of Representatives’ health committee that the virus was not that deadly and that lockdowns were too harsh.
In July, a San Diego County supervisor interviewed the Stanford scientist in a talk described as “why Dr. Bhattacharya thinks COVID-19 will be over sooner rather than later.”
This summer, Florida teachers sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his plan to resume in-person schooling in the state, where the death count was setting records throughout August. Bhattacharya testified in the lawsuit on behalf of his plan.
And in the first week of September, Trump declared at a press conference: “Under Operation Warp Speed, we’ve pioneered groundbreaking therapies, reducing the fatality rate 85% since April.” The claim was misleading, according to PolitiFact: One reason the fatality rate was much higher in April was that testing then was focused on those who were more severely ill and therefore more likely to die.
The source of the 85% figure? A chart drawn up by Bhattacharya.
As the battle over school reopenings reached a fever pitch, Trump appointed a new adviser to his coronavirus task force: Scott Atlas.
Atlas is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, where Bhattacharya was also formerly a research fellow. Atlas has asserted, against the preponderance of scientific evidence, that masks do not help curb the spread of the coronavirus (they do), that children “almost never” transmit it (studies indicate that they likely do, and this risk increases with age), and that “T cell immunity” from past infections offers protection against it (a claim disputed by scientists who research the topic).
In his new job, he helped push the CDC to narrow its guidance for who should get tested, according to the New York Times. His actions have reportedly angered others in the administration. “Everything he says is false,” CDC Director Robert Redfield recently said in an overheard call.
More than 100 medical and health experts at Stanford signed a letter condemning their colleague’s “falsehoods and misrepresentations,” saying they “undermine public-health authorities and the credible science that guides effective public health policy.” Atlas threatened to sue the Stanford faculty members, but has yet to do so.
Shortly after Atlas joined the task force in mid-August, the Washington Post reported that he was urging the White House to embrace a herd immunity strategy. Atlas denied the report.
But in public, he has consistently argued for letting the virus spread unchecked in healthy people — even if he hasn’t always used the term “herd immunity.”
“Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected, generating immunity on their own — and the more immunity in the community, the better we can eradicate the threat of the virus,” he said on a conservative talk show in April. “That’s what herd immunity is.”
He made a similar argument in a Fox News radio interview in July. “When you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you’re prolonging the problem because you’re preventing population immunity,” he said.
In drafting the Great Barrington Declaration, Bhattacharya teamed up with Sunetra Gupta, a theoretical epidemiologist whom the Wall Street Journal nicknamed “Britain’s ‘Professor Reopen.’” In a highly controversial modeling study in March, she and colleagues suggested that half of the United Kingdom may have already had the virus.
The third author, Martin Kulldorff, is a Harvard biostatistician who specializes in disease surveillance modeling. He favors testing older people for the coronavirus, but not young and healthy people because it would lead to “needless school closures,” as he and Bhattacharya explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month.
Together, the trio say that their new proposal would isolate older people from younger ones, as opposed to the Trump administration’s approach to date, which Bhattacharya said was an attempt at a “more or less complete lockdown.”
“Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume,” the scientists wrote in their letter. “People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”
The scientists’ letter is named after the Massachusetts town where the authors met to write it last weekend, and where the American Institute for Economic Research, which hosted the gathering, is headquartered. A complaint submitted to Stanford, and shared with BuzzFeed News, raised the concern that Bhattacharya may have violated the campus’s safety protocols by attending the indoors event. A university spokesperson declined to comment on the complaint. Bhattacharya did not return multiple requests for comment.
Atlas told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that he supported many of the views in the Great Barrington letter, though he did not sign it. “I believe that to solely focus on ‘stopping Covid-19 at all costs’ is reckless and unconscionable,” he said by email. He cited indications that during the pandemic, people are putting off getting screened for cancer and treated for strokes, fewer child abuse cases are being reported with children out of school, and more adults have issues related to mental health and substance abuse.
It’s not surprising that a seemingly science-backed way for many to return to “normal” would hold wide appeal after months of lost jobs, stress, deaths, and restrictions, said Gregg Gonsalves of Yale.
“That’s not to say at all that there hasn’t been pain and suffering about this,” he said. “But their foil is that, ‘Do you want these horrible lockdowns to go on forever? Or do you want to go back to work? Do you want to go back to the movies? Do you want to go back to see your favorite sports teams? Do you want to go out to dinner again?’ They’re setting up a false dichotomy.”
“What’s very attractive about what Dr. Kulldorff, Dr. Gupta, and Scott Atlas and others have proposed is it’s an easy out,” he added.
“What’s very attractive about what Dr. Kulldorff, Dr. Gupta, and Scott Atlas and others have proposed is it’s an easy out.”
The letter calls for nursing homes to have frequent testing and staffers with “acquired immunity,” and for retirees living at home to have supplies delivered. But it is light on specifics, saying that “a comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals.”
This language doesn’t come anywhere near acknowledging how challenging it would be to implement such a plan, outside experts say.
Isolating people who have preexisting conditions that make them especially susceptible to the virus would mean isolating nearly half the adult population. Isolating older Americans, who have the relatively highest risk of death, would mean isolating an overlapping group of tens of millions. Only about 13% of Americans over the age of 64 were in a nursing home or other senior living setting in 2015, meaning the vast majority are embedded in communities. About 64 million Americans lived in multigenerational households as of 2016.
What the Great Barrington Declaration also does not acknowledge is that young, healthy adults who get infected can spread the virus to middle-aged and older Americans, which appears to have happened this summer. Young people themselves may die of COVID-19 at much lower rates than older people, but a not insignificant portion get sick enough to become hospitalized, straining the healthcare system that much more. And “long-haulers,” many of them young and formerly healthy, can for months experience debilitating effects that are not yet understood.
“They’re not going to be able to age-target,” Gonsalves said. “They’re not going to be able to protect these hundreds of millions of vulnerable people.”
Pursuing herd immunity without a vaccine is highly impractical for other reasons, too. For one, scientists are not sure how long immunity lasts, and there have been a handful of reported cases of reinfection. And the CDC director recently estimated that as many as 90% of Americans remain susceptible to the virus. Even in New York, one of the hardest-hit places in the country and therefore among the closest to herd immunity, the virus has infected only about 20% of the population.
Purposely letting the virus spread without a vaccine would likely kill millions. More would continue to get infected and die even once herd immunity was reached, scientists say.
“Depending on natural infections to control the outbreak could lead to months, if not years, of a cycle where cases subside and then they surge,” said Ravina Kullar of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “That is not the solution to this pandemic.”
Asked about these and other criticisms, Kulldorff said he was open to a “proper scientific debate” with anyone who disagreed with him. Gupta did not return multiple requests for comment.
Spokespeople for Stanford and Oxford did not comment on the Great Barrington Declaration other than to say that the institutions supported their faculty members’ academic freedom. Harvard did not return a request for comment.
The US is caught in a “patchwork pandemic” — a whack-a-mole game where outbreaks have jumped from region to region where restrictions were either never put into place or were prematurely scaled back. The lack of national coordination of public health measures like masking, contact tracing, and comprehensive testing has fueled that cycle, Gonsalves said.
“We could be like countries in Asia and countries in Europe and other places that have buffered the effects of the pandemic while doing real frontline public health to keep rates down, and we haven’t done it,” he said. “And we made a national choice to do that.”
As the pandemic worsens and the election nears, the White House has increasingly peddled the idea that the virus can be vanquished through natural immunity. Or, as Trump put it during a televised town hall on Sept. 15, “herd mentality.”
At the event, he proclaimed that the US was “rounding the corner” on the pandemic. The interviewer pointed out that Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, disagreed. “Well, I mean, but a lot of people do agree with me,” the president replied. “You look at Scott Atlas, you look at some of the other doctors that are highly…from Stanford. Look at some of the other doctors.”
About a week later, a reporter asked Atlas about the CDC director’s recent assertion that most Americans are still susceptible to infections. Atlas said that the director had “misstated” the situation, and cited Kulldorff, Bhattacharya, Ioannidis, and Gupta. “These are people who know the latest data on the immunology and what’s happening, and I just recited it to you,” he said.
On Sept. 24, Bhattacharya and Kulldorff joined a livestreamed discussion with Florida’s governor. They — along with Michael Levitt of Stanford, a Nobel laureate who has incorrectly predicted that the virus was about to run its course in multiple countries — vouched for the governor’s efforts to reopen schools and the economy.
“At this point, we know that the benefits of a lockdown are small,” Bhattacharya said. “All they do is push cases off into the future; it doesn’t actually prevent the disease from happening. And the costs are absolutely catastrophic, enormous.”
The next day, at a time when cases were spiking on Florida college campuses, DeSantis announced that the state was lifting all restrictions on restaurants and businesses.
“Dr. Scott Atlas and Dr. Bhattacharya are truth tellers in a sea of government misinformation,” Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, tweeted on Sept. 28.
Yet despite receiving national attention for his ideas, Bhattacharya has repeatedly claimed he is being silenced. “I’ve been really concerned about censorship in science around this epidemic,” he said on a podcast last month.
He doubled down in a more recent video. “I think that has been one of the things I’ve regretted throughout this entire crisis,” he said, “is this attempt to suppress scientific discussion because some ideas are too dangerous to even discuss.”
Who was suppressing him, he didn’t say. The video was posted Oct. 5, the day of his meeting with the Trump administration. ●
This story has been updated to clarify Scott Atlas’s comments on T-cell immunity.