Dr. Michael Osterholm challenges the Great Barrington Declaration and the low herd immunity myth
By Kent R. Kroeger (October 25, 2020)
Yesterday’s news that the U.S. reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday (83,000+) did not surprise anyone who has been listening to Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, since this coronavirus pandemic began.
When many politicians and news media celebrities in March and April were talking about the pandemic as a single surge as part of a one large wave, Dr. Osterholm and his CIDRAP colleagues were warning that there would be multiple waves with the biggest likely occurring in the Fall.
Score one for Dr. Osterholm and CIDRAP.
When President Trump and more than a few media-selected experts were anticipating the fast development of a SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) vaccine, perhaps by summer’s end, Dr. Osterholm was on Joe Rogan’s podcast saying it would take many months, well into next year, before a vaccine could even conceivably be available for wide distribution.
When Dr. Osterholm went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday and said that the next few months with be the darkest of the pandemic and the country, I took it seriously, even as I am a skeptic about the utility of widespread or selective economic lockdowns and remain optimistic that falling case fatality rates are a sign that treatments are becoming more and more effective against this viral scourge.
Dr. Osterholm would probably classify my views as naive and potentially deadly.
So when Dr. Osterholm on his podcast last Thursday called out the public health and epidemiological professionals who signed the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) — -which, among other things, says that “current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health” and that “simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold” — -I listened.
Herd immunity is when so many people in a community become immune to an infectious disease that it stops the disease from spreading.
Where Dr. Osterholm takes greatest issue with the GBD is its suggestion that we can “reduce” the herd immunity threshold, which CIDRAP any many epidemiological experts estimate to be around 50 to 70 percent of the population.
Though no specific herd immunity threshold is cited in the GBD itself, some of its signers and a minority of epidemiological experts have suggested coronavirus herd immunity thresholds are much lower than 50 to 70 percent of the population, perhaps as lows as 20 to 30 percent.
What says Dr. Osterholm to those lower herd immunity estimates?
“That figure is the most amazing combination of pixie dust and pseudo-science I’ve ever seen,” says Dr. Osterholm. “Now matter how much information we supply, these myths still continue. If you look at the congregate living areas (e.g., prisons), you can see that once the virus gets into this tight space with enhanced capacity for transmission, it blows right through, well into the 60, 70 percent range.”
Unlike much of the questionable information being spread about the coronavirus, the GBD represents a genuine debate in the epidemiological community and is supported by a small, but highly credentialed group of public health experts — -which is why Dr. Osterholm is so adamant in challenging some of the GBD’s ideas.
“I’ve seen studies come out that say, ‘Well, we had a house on fire and suddenly it got limited in terms of transmission and, so, herd immunity must be at 25 percent,” says Dr. Osterholm. “I’ve heard that for New York and Brazil’s Amazon region.”
Did they achieve herd immunity?
No, says Dr. Osterholm: “Enough suppressing activities were put into place and, in fact, transmission slowed down to the point that it was minimized. That didn’t mean you hit herd immunity. A place like New York City is just as ripe as ever for another outbreak.”
One of the central precepts of the GBD is that those people most vulnerable to the coronavirus can be isolated — -”bubbled off” as some put it — -from the general, healthier population.
Dr. Osterholm has an answer to that: “You can’t assume you can bubble off of people who are high risk. There are lot of people in our society who are of high risk. How do you bubble people who have increased BMIs (Body Mass Indexes) who are 35 years of age. How do you bubble if you live in a house where you are the essential worker and you come home to a multi-generational family of grandpa and grandma and your kids.”
And what is Dr. Osterholm’s view on the next best steps to combat the coronavirus?
“We want to keep everyone from getting infected until we have a vaccine available,” he says, noting that a safe and effective effective is still six to eight months away in his estimation.
But this herd immunity dispute isn’t just an exercise of the scientific method, it is a moral one in Dr. Osterholm’s opinion: “I think it is immoral, frankly, to think we should just let a lot of people get infected.”
Dr. Osterholm goes even further in his critique of the GDB and its signers: “The Barrington Declaration will go down as one of the worst moments that anyone who ever signed it will have in their public health career.”
Strong words by a man that has gotten far more right than wrong when it comes to making predictions about the coronavirus.
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