Great Barrington, Massachusetts, recently played host to a meeting that’s causing controversy in the scientific community and caught the attention of the White House. Those who gathered propose a new approach to dealing with COVID-19 that they say would speed up what’s known as herd immunity.
In early October, three university professors with backgrounds in epidemiology met at the headquarters of a think tank called the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
It’s been arguing against lockdowns since January.
One professor is from Harvard, another from Stanford, and the third, Sunetra Gupta, is from Oxford. She said their plan would allow a much quicker return to normal life.
“I would be confident in saying that if we adopted this strategy, then maybe we could all have a nice normal Christmas,” she said.
The strategy, outlined in what the professors are calling the Great Barrington Declaration, proposes what they call Focused Protection as the best way to handle COVID-19. It would shield the most vulnerable like the elderly and let younger people go back to school, college and work.
Martin Kulldorff, a professor at Harvard Medical School, led the effort. He said just focusing on deaths from COVID-19 is too limited.
“We have forgotten about all the collateral damage that the lockdowns are costing like school closures, which has terrible effects on children — not only their education, but also their physical health and their mental health,” Kulldorff said. “And cancer screenings, immunization rates [are] worsening.”
Kulldorff said we’re currently trying to limit the virus’s spread too broadly.
“There are enormous difference[s] in mortality risk by age, and it’s not like it’s two-fold or five-fold or 10-fold, even 100-fold,” he said. “The difference in mortality risk between the oldest and the youngest is more than 1,000-fold.”
But there are plenty of people in the scientific community who are pushing back. One of them is Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of public health at Yale.
“The first component of the Great Barrington Declaration is that the elderly can be sequestered and protected against infection,” Gonsalves said. “But only 5% of elderly in the United States live in nursing homes. Most live as single individuals, with their spouses, or in and about and among us with their families. So the idea that we can sort of wall off the elderly is a dubious notion.”
Stanford Professor Jay Bhattacharya, who helped write the declaration, said there are creative ways to redirect resources that have been deployed to protect people at low risk of dying of COVID-19 to those at high risk.
“We could use the hotels we’ve been using to house young homeless people,” Bhattacharya said. “Instead, house older people who can’t shield themselves from their family, because they live in small houses, or something.”
But opponent Gonsalves said higher infection rates would undoubtedly end up impacting those who are vulnerable, no matter how careful people are.
“You turn up the heat, in terms of the virus spread across the community, you’re in big trouble,” Gonsalves said. “And that’s the piece of the Great Barrington Declaration which doesn’t make sense. Why would you turn up viral replication across the country?”
Kulldorf insists that his plan would lead to lower mortality overall.
Gonsalves isn’t convinced.
“They’re staking out a radical claim that has very little support in the scientific community,” Gonsalves said. “So it’s not as if there’s like a scientific debate. It’s sort of flat earth versus the world is round.”
The declaration has received the support of over 34,000 scientists and medical practitioners around the world — though according to reporting in England, they include bogus names, like “Dr. Johnny Bananas.”
According to The New York Times, unnamed White House officials have embraced the Great Barrington Declaration.