Hancock shows his ignorance on herd immunity

In yesterday’s post, I suggested that in rejecting the SAGE recommendation for a circuit-breaker lockdown in England made on September 21st, the Government may have been moving slightly towards the Great Barrington Declaration recommendations of Professor Sunetra Gupta and colleagues. How wrong I was.

In parliament yesterday, Matt Hancock explained to the house why, “on the substance”, the central claim of the Great Barrington Declaration was “emphatically not true”. “Many diseases never reach herd immunity – including measles, malaria, AIDS and flu…” he said. “Herd immunity is a flawed goal – even if we could get to it, which we can’t.”

Does Matt Hancock know what he’s talking about?

In this article published in Unherd, Professor Gupta politely rebuts Hancock’s ignorant tirade by graciously describing in an excellent, calm and informative summary of what constitutes herd immunity.

Indications of the herd immunity threshold having been reached are available from the time signatures of epidemics in various parts of the world where death and infection curves tend to “bend” in the absence of intervention or to stay down when interventions were relaxed (in comparison with other locations where the opposite happened). But we do not know how far we are from it in most parts of the UK. It is important to bear in mind that the attainment of the herd immunity threshold does not lead to disease eradication. Instead it corresponds to an equilibrium state in which the infections lingers at low levels in the community. This is the situation we tolerate for most infectious diseases (like flu which kills 650,000 people every year globally). The situation can be vastly improved through vaccination, but it is very difficult to eliminate the disease even with a good vaccine.

The Great Barrington Declaration proposes a solution for how we may proceed in the face of such uncertainty. It suggests that we exploit the feature of this virus that it does not cause much harm to the large majority of the population to allow them to resume their normal lives, while shielding those who are vulnerable to severe disease and death.

Under these circumstances, immunity will build up in the general population to a level that poses a low enough risk of infection to the vulnerable population that they may resume their normal lives. All of this can happen over a period of six months, and so this Focused Protection plan does not involve the permanent segregation of the vulnerable from the rest of the population.

Since the declaration last week, the Great Barrington Declaration has come under attack across the media, online (including Wikipedia and Google tagging it as misinformation) from fellow academics as being part of a Libertarian conspiracy (my politics are not remotely libertarian) or being based in “pseudoscience”; others attempting to be less defamatory say that our views are “fringe”. The large number of serious scientists from top institutions taking part suggest otherwise. There are genuine good faith disagreements that must be aired and discussed — the impact on the world is too significant for us to fail to have this discussion in a serious way. click for full Unherd article

Sadly, this is being debated in an environment in which politicians and much of the media see herd immunity as some sort of modern death cult, which seeks to consign millions to an early grave. This is indeed a strange fate for a term used to describe a biological phenomenon (herd immunity) without which the human race would have died out long ago.

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