Anti-lockdown petition started by three top scientists reaches 30,000 signatures with call for ‘focused protection’ of vulnerable people to control coronavirus so the young can live normal lives and build herd immunity
- Oxford University professor Dr Sunetra Gupta was one of three authors
- Concept of herd immunity controversial because there is no proof it will work
- It also overlooks complications other than death, such as ‘long covid’
- Scientists say people who are not at high risk should be allowed to live normally
- Lockdown rules in the US and UK are causing ‘irreparable damage’, they argue
Scientists from the world’s top universities have penned an open letter calling for the UK and US to build herd immunity to Covid-19 by letting it spread in young people.
The anti-lockdown petition, signed by almost 30,000 people, warns that tough social distancing rules are having ‘damaging physical and mental health impacts’.
Most of the population, they argue, is not at risk of dying if they catch Covid-19 and efforts should be focused on protecting those who are vulnerable, while letting everyone else get on with their lives as normal.
The letter, named the Great Barrington Declaration, is a rallying cry for top scientists and politicians to stop running from the coronavirus and to accept it.
‘Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,’ the scientists say, adding: ‘Keeping these [lockdown] measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.’
One of the three authors is University of Oxford professor Dr Sunetra Gupta, who is now renowned for her controversial views on herd immunity.
She wrote the declaration alongside Harvard University’s Dr Martin Kulldorff and Stanford’s Dr Jay Bhattacharya. It has already been signed by 1,500 scientists, 1,700 medical workers and 26,000 members of the public.
But the petition has been met with concern – one scientist pointed out it doesn’t take into account problems other than death, such as ‘long covid’, and that it overlooks the fact there is no proof that herd immunity is even possible.
One of the three authors is University of Oxford professor Dr Sunetra Gupta, who is now renowned for her controversial views on herd immunity
Dr Sunetra Gupta, an infectious diseases expert at Oxford University, is now renowned for her controversial views in favour of trying to develop Covid-19 herd immunity
In the Great Barrington Declaration the scientists write: ‘Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.
‘The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular [heart] disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.
‘Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.
‘Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.’
Herd immunity occurs when a disease runs out of room and can no longer spread because enough of the population have been exposed to it, either because they’ve already had it or have been vaccinated.
If nobody is immune to an illness – as was the case at the start of the pandemic – it can spread like wildfire. But if, for example, half of people have developed immunity there are only half as many people the illness can spread to.
As more and more people become immune the pathogen finds it harder and harder to spread, until its pool of victims becomes so small it can no longer spread at all.
The threshold for herd immunity is different for various illnesses, depending on how contagious they are – for measles, around 95 per cent of people must be vaccinated to it spreading. For polio, which is less contagious, the threshold is about 80-85 per cent.
But because there is no vaccine for Covid-19, it means actively hunting down herd immunity through natural exposure is controversial because it would mean tens of thousands of people would die.
Government advisors have previously said around 60 per cent of Britain would need to be infected to achieve herd immunity — around 40million people. But, in theory, it would mean around 240,000 Britons would die, given that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is estimated to kill around 0.6 per cent of everyone it infects.
And scientists still do not have any firm proof as to how long immunity actually lasts once a person has fought off Covid-19, and doctors around the world have warned of re-infections — even though the evidence suggests they are less serious.
Some research has suggested the herd immunity threshold could actually be as low as 10 per cent, if it spreads more rampantly among the most socially active. This is because they are into contact with others more regularly and are, therefore, more likely to spread the illness.
Herd immunity without a vaccine is considered a controversial route for getting out of the pandemic because it gives a message of encouraging the spread of the virus, rather than containing it.
No 10 was even forced to deny herd immunity was the strategy after Boris Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings reportedly confirmed the plan at a private event back in February, allegedly saying it was ‘too bad’ if it meant ‘some pensioners die’.
And leaked emails published last month showed that both Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty faced backlash from academics over the controversial ‘herd immunity’ approach that was further discussed in March.
Meanwhile, unlike most European nations, Sweden never imposed a lockdown and kept schools for under-16s, cafes, bars, restaurants and most businesses open when the disease hit Europe in February.
Researchers have even suggested that the Scandinavian nation has since built up a degree of immunity to the virus, with one academic claiming that the virus may now have run out of steam in Sweden.
But data compiled by Our World In Data — a website that has tracked the pandemic since it began — suggests cases have began to rise again over the past few weeks. For instance, Sweden’s seven-day average of daily infections stood at 560 on October 1, up from 250 at the start of September.
They say that elderly people are 1,000 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than children, meaning the two groups should not face the same rules.
‘Focused Prevention’ could protect the vulnerable – by using care home staff who have already had the virus, for example, by delivering groceries to elderly people so they don’t have to go shopping, or by families meeting outdoors instead of inside.
Normal hygiene rules such as regular hand-washing and self-isolation for people who are ill should continue, but life for young, healthy people could go on, they said.
‘Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,’ Dr Gupta and colleagues wrote.
‘Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed.
‘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. 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 herd immunity focus of the declaration will not be met with open arms by all.
Scientists still cannot prove whether people develop any immunity to Covid-19 after catching it the first time.
If it turns out that people regularly get the illness twice or more it may mean that turn the concept of herd immunity on its head. There have been sporadic reports from around the world of reinfection, but the circumstances that allow it to happen are unclear.
For many of the people who are alleged to have caught it twice, scientists suspect their original illness never cleared up or their test results were wrong somewhere along the line.
One critic of the petition, University of Kent virologist Professor Jeremy Rossman said: ‘This declaration ignores three critical aspects that could result in significant impacts to health and lives.
‘First, we still do not know if herd immunity is possible to achieve. Herd immunity relies on lasting immunological protection from coronavirus re-infection.
‘However, we have heard many recent cases of re-infection occurring and some research suggests protective antibody responses may decay rapidly.
‘Second, the declaration focuses only on the risk of death from Covid-19 but ignores the growing awareness of long-COVID, that many healthy young adults with “mild” Covid-19 infections are experiencing protracted symptoms and long-term disability.
‘Third, countries that have forgone lockdown restrictions in favour of personal responsibility and focused protection of the elderly, such as Sweden, were not able to successfully protect the vulnerable population.
‘While there is clearly a need to support and ease the physical and mental health burdens many are suffering under, the proposed declaration is both unlikely to succeed and puts the long-term health of many at risk.’
Professor James Naismith, a University of Oxford biologist, said he ‘read it with interest’ but won’t sign the declaration.
He explained: ‘We do not know yet how long immunity will last, so achieving herd immunity may not be simple. We do not have herd immunity to the common cold despite many of us having one or more each year.
‘It would have helped had the leading scientists who signed this declaration estimated achievability of herd immunity with different immune response decays.
‘The desired range for herd immunity is not stated nor how far away we are from it, thus no estimate of the number of deaths or the life changing complications that will result in the lower vulnerability group is made.
‘Whilst these numbers are much lower than in the elderly, they are not zero. I suspect the public would like to know this.’
WHO CREATED THE GREAT BARRINGTON DECLARATION?
The declaration was written by Dr Martin Kulldorff (Harvard University), Dr Sunetra Gupta (Oxford) and Dr Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford).
It has since been signed by 1,500 scientists, 1,700 medical workers and 26,000 members of the public.
The co-signers, who added their names to the report before it was published, were:
- Professor Sucharit Bhakdi (University of Mainz)
- Dr Rajiv Bhatia (Physician, USA)
- Professor Stephen Bremner (University of Sussex)
- Professor Anthony J Brookes (University of Leicester)
- Dr Helen Colhoun (University of Edinburgh)
- Professor Angus Dalgleish (St. George’s, University of London)
- Dr Sylvia Fogel (Harvard)
- Dr Eitan Friedman (Tel Aviv University)
- Dr Uri Gavish (Biomedical consultant)
- Professor Motti Gerlic (Tel Aviv University)
- Dr Gabriela Gomes (University of Strathclyde)
- Professor Mike Hulme (University of Cambridge)
- Dr Michael Jackson (University of Canterbury, New Zealand)
- Dr David Katz (Yale University)
- Dr Andrius Kavaliunas (Karolinska Institute)
- Dr Laura Lazzeroni (Stanford)
- Dr Michael Levitt (Stanford)
- Professor David Livermore (University of East Anglia)
- Dr Jonas Ludvigsson (Örebro University Hospital, Sweden)
- Dr Paul McKeigue (University of Edinburgh)
- Dr Cody Meissner (Tufts University)
- Professor Ariel Munitz (Tel Aviv University)
- Professor Yaz Gulnur Muradoglu (Queen Mary University of London)
- Professor Partha P. Majumder (Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)
- Professor Udi Qimron (Tel Aviv University)
- Professor Matthew Ratcliffe (University of York)
- Dr Mario Recker (University of Exeter)
- Dr Eyal Shahar (University of Arizona)
- Professor Karol Sikora (Rutherford Health)
- Dr Rodney Sturdivant (Baylor University)
- Dr Simon Thornley (University of Auckland)
- Professor Ellen Townsend (University of Nottingham)
- Professor Lisa White (Oxford University)
- Professor Simon Wood (University of Edinburgh)
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