The Great Barrington Declaration?

A group of senior medical scientists have gotten together to pen an open petition to governments and society, calling for a herd immunity approach to the coronavirus. Signatories already include over 3000 “Medical & Public Health Scientists”, 4000 “Medical Practitioners”, and 60,000 others not in those categories. That’s pretty good in these times of strong adverse media headwinds.

As I too have been here on Troppo, the organisers of that petition are deeply worried about the damage that the lockdowns and other anti-social measures are doing to children, students, the poor, the developing world, the elderly, and everyone else. Their key quotes on policy are

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

where I want to heartily cheer the phrase “most compassionate approach”. It is exactly that. This approach means

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. 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.

which is pretty much what many Australian residents called for in our June letter to governments. There are small things I do not agree with in the letter, but on the general message I am in agreement so have signed it. The strong should accept the burden of gaining high degrees of immunity so that the vulnerable run less risk when leading a normal life. We should indeed encourage and celebrate high covid infection rates among the young and healthy.

Do sign the petition to show your support.

This entry was posted in Coronavirus crisis, Cultural Critique, Death and taxes, Health, History, Life, Medical, Science, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

61 Responses to The Great Barrington Declaration?

  1. Moz in Oz says:

    Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal

    I agree entirely.

    The thing is, though, that I’m agreeing from the position that no-one can show they’re invulnerable to covid-19, and thus no-one qualifies for the exemption. We have no vaccine, we have seen re-infection and we still don’t understand what’s required for either of those things.

    • paul frijters says:

      by now most people will know whether they are a high risk or a low risk. Anyone below 70 without a serious health condition is in a low risk group.

    • Moz can anybody claim to be invulnerable to, death?
      So what’s so special about dying of covid rather than dying of the flu or all the other multitude of infectious diseases that we have not “eradicated “that could justify the suspension of rule of law and all sense of proportion?

    • Bruce Foskey says:

      It’s hard to work out how much, if any, “reinfections” of covid-19 have actually occurred, given the inaccuracy of the tests and their tendency to give false positives.

      • Conrad says:

        The chance of reinfection for known coronaviruses is basically 100%, so if we haven’t got them, it would be very surprising if we didn’t get them in the future. So you could reframe the question as what happens the second time you get it, and one might hope like many viruses you don’t get as sick. But no-one can answer this, and you could also get cumulative damage too (this is an easy read from people that know about these sorts of things).

        • paul frijters says:

          the reinfection issue is an important unknown, true, but when you say reinfection on known coronaviruses is 100% you should also mention that the degree to which people get sick is not the same the second and third time. That’s the point of those B and T cells: they get the immune system into gear quicker a next time round. And T cells seem to stick around for many years for coronaviruses.

          • Conrad says:

            As noted: “and one might hope like many viruses you don’t get as sick”. I agree it is the most likely outcome, but certainly not the only outcome — The degree of protection is going to be important too as will the variability in different populations — influenza still kills old people even though more or less everyone would have some resistance to most strains. So, if you start getting hurt by the virus, say, after 50, and you catch it 10 times, obviously that’s going to be a bad outcome for everyone.

          • Conrad says:

            So much for it being better the second time around: . Of the two cases we now know about, I seem to remember the HK one was asymptomatic both times, and this one is worse the second time around.

            I don’t suppose you can conclude too much from an N=2, but given the standard pattern (you get more resistance) this would have to be a very low probability event for that hypothesis.

            • at the end of the day data must be conclusive but forgive me for not paying too much attention to another Lancet beat-up. With 800 million people infected according to the WHO, only a few documented re-infections in 9 months and the odd weird patient dont make compelling data of massive numbers of re-infections. Certainly not next to the evidence on the longevity of some of the T-cell immunity, the Amsterdam data on shorter subsequent infections, and how recovered health staff is used. The notion that immunity wanes off entirely among a sizeable fraction of the population remains a remote possibility, but data must indeed ultimately be decisive.

        • Alan Shortt says:

          Thats by no means a known truth.

          1 People can recatch a cold but is it the same strain of over 200 strains? I still cant find the answer to that despite strenous searches. I did find something from the UK common cold research centre from 1957.

          2 Any such reinfection if it does happen is likely to be less severe in those who got any illness/exposure sufficient to provoke an immune response in the first place . This is what medical students are taught at medical school as being one of the purposes mechanisms of the immune system

          3 Cumulative damage from repeated infections is speculation ad adsurbam and like long covid (until more clearly quantified) should not really be added to the mix of arguments in favour of lockdown)

          • Alan Shortt says:

            EDIT apologies PF already adressed this

            • Conrad says:

              1) See e.g., There are other studies out there too if you look harder.
              2) I agree with “is likely”. But is likely isn’t generally what you bet entire populations on unless the alternative is worse.
              3) “Cumulative damage from repeated infections is speculation ad adsurbam”. No it isn’t — tell that to Australia’s experts at the Howard Florey Institute who wrote the article I linked above. They note it could be a problem.This is not surprising because cumulative effects of brain damage (which covid is clearly causing in some people) cause non-linear effects in the way you don’t want. Similarly, scarring on lungs is cumulative. There are also illnesses like dengue fever that are worse the second time around.

    • Honest Bob says:

      The vaccine – if it comes – will provide a false sense of security because it won’t have 100% efficacy and no-one will know for sure if it’s working or not (until they get infected) but they will assume it’s working for them (as we do for the flu vaccine). Also, like the flu vaccine, not everyone will get vaccinated. People still die of the flu decades after flu vaccines were introduced. So we need to learn how to live with the virus, with or without a vaccine. Face masks, social distancing and reduced crowding at sports venues, concerts, cinemas and on public transport will become normal for years to come. However borders must open because the world can’t function with closed borders, and quarantine at home needs to be allowed. The sooner, the better, because too many people are suffering from the closures.

  2. hc says:

    Would the move to favor the pursuit of herd immunity be conditional on numbers of infections being large? In all states of Australia, there are close to zero infections now except for Victoria. In Victoria today the 14-day moving average of new infections is 9.9 today. There are 2500 workers doing track-and-trace for those infected in Victoria now covering 11 cases of infection with unknown source.

    You might say ex post that we have acted unwisely in Australia – we have incurred huge public and private costs. But given that we have got vto this point and given the irrelevance of sunk costs surely it would not make sense to now pursue herd immunity.

    • paul frijters says:

      “we have incurred huge public and private costs”

      good of you to say so, though it was said ex ante, not just ex post. It was entirely predicted right here at troppo in March.

      “given that we have got to this point and given the irrelevance of sunk costs surely it would not make sense to now pursue herd immunity.”

      No, halting all restrictions and thus going for herd immunity is even now the best strategy for Australia. Its because the ongoing costs of being isolated as a country and having ongoing social distancing measures are huge. There is also the high likelihood of another virus wave before mid 2021 (which is the earliest date you can realistically expect a useful vaccine in high enough numbers to matter), and every week of harsh lockdown measures during that next wave will cost Australia as much as it could hope to avoid in terms of covid victims.

      So only if its about pride does it make sense to continue like this in Australia. The kind of pride that is blind to the suffering of the population. The kind of pride that doesn’t mind if the future of its children and of the strength of the whole country is vastly reduced.

      • Paul don’t really agree, given the political realities and the power of deliberately organised panic , and the truth that living under the situation in NSW is not ( for most) that bad,
        I’d opt for ( assuming Victoria can get its shit together -no small thing) then we keep on with well organised ,quick jumping on spotfires , containment and praying for rain.

        • the situation in NSW may feel liveable, but its an artificial situation based on unsustainable borrowing with a lot of ongoing destruction hidden from view.
          Just think of how many in NSW are going to see their livelihoods destroyed whilst “waiting for rain”. Think of the people who study abroad or have families abroad who are effectively banned from traveling. Think of the effects of closed borders on the population of trading partners. Think of the ongoing disruption to health services. And think of the high likelihood of more waves anyway (both before and after the vaccine). Also, the fear industry is not going to stop, nor is it likely that a vaccine will be the end of the covid waves.
          So it is somewhat inevitable that the fear and the fear machinery must be rejected. Its just a question of how much destruction it takes for people to accept this, which is a matter of pride and habits of obedience.

          • Saupreiss says:

            I fear you are for the most part right; that said, things are even more fucked-up in Queensland and Victoria. Palaszczuk’s cynical re-election gamble comes at incredibly high cost for the literally hundred of thousands that live near the border to NSW for example and have been cut off from essential community and health resources. Shameful.

            Unfortunately, much of this will be driven home only well into 2021 when some of the stimuli programs will be discontinued …

          • Yes however at the moment politically it’s too courageous ,guess that may well change.
            Anne and I still don’t know if we will ever be able to see her 94 year old dad again. And we know a lot of musicians, a group who have been and continue to be particularly hard hit by the current restrictions

          • Paul Sweden is unusual, their constitution simply prevents much of the kind of mandated restrictions on movement that are the essence of lockdowns and the Swedes famously pride themselves on their independence of approach to many things.

            As for Australia, if we can get Victoria up to scratch and if Qld etc can stop panicking every time there is one or two new cases in a million, I.e.accept that its something we can and must live with.
            Then we should be able to open up to nations like Taiwan, China, NZ ,Vietnam etc that have also got down to ‘one in a million’ . (And also allow say 600 people to go to a concert at angel place rather than the current 400. )

            It’s not ideal but it’s achievable and so much better than the ongoing chaos ,mismanagement and misery of say the UK.

    • alan says:

      Very good point — I believe the world “got it wrong” that Australia got it wrong, but from our current position of extended relative sparing the argument is a more difficult sell. Which is not to say there is justification for the Melbourne Lockdowns. I look forward to help getting my head round this

    • Dugald says:

      “Herd immunity is not a strategy … it’s more a recognition of a biological fact”.
      – Dr Jay Bhattacharya

  3. paul frijters says:

    there is a lot of humour to the declaration if you care to look. For instance, if you ask in what 5 languages the declaration should appear, you’d think of some of the most used languages in the world like Chinese, Hindi, Arab, etc.

    Well, 4 of the 5 languages used are English, German, Spanish and Portuguese, which, though they are all European languages, are at least all of them big languages with more than 100 million speakers each. But the fifth language is Swedish, which wouldnt make a top 50 of languages spoken or written, and not a top-20 of European languages either. It tells you who was at the retreat!

    Another humorous bit is that the declaration defines herd immunity in this very abstract way that almost no-one will get and is not helpful at all, clearly written by someone used to playing with equilibrium models. Herd immunity is described as “the point at which the rate of new infections is stable”. Taken literally, this includes elimination where there is a stable rate of zero infections. Indeed, taken literally it rules out everything except elimination and total exposure as anything in between is never completely stable. You basically have to know the model the author had in mind to know what abstract concept is meant.

    And of course the phrase “Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal.” would literally mean “nobody” as no one can know with certainty that they are “not vulnerable”. Once again the reader has to be a bit generous and look at the lines above and below to know they mean those with low risks.

    However, this is just nitpicking. It adds to the charm of the declaration that it is clunky and the product of geeky scientists, not marketeers.

    • paul frijters says:

      read it, thanks for linking. The opinions gathered in that article are typical of many other reactions. The commentators make the fair point that trying to focus resources on the vulnerable is neither easy nor likely to work in many cases, something I have always taken account of in my modelling and that is not denied in the GBD. But they have no eye at all for the damage done by lockdowns and continued social distancing measures. No sense of proportionality or the loss of health and life that come from the measures. Its as if avoiding one covid death is worth giving up democracy and killing a thousand others for.

      Sometimes the reasoning of the commentators is bizarre, such as that the clear failure of the UK to protect the vulnerable via draconian lockdowns proves we should not abandon those measures but apply more of them.

      Its important to realise that the GBD is essentially re-establishing the scientific advice that was in place before the great panic of march 2020. GBD represents the received wisdom of epidemiological thinking of the last few decades, whilst the pro-lockdown groups are those running massive unproven experiments that have turned out to do far more harm than good.

      • Paul from Jennifer Hewett on the bizarre illogic of the Melbourne method:

        NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian repeats elimination of community transmission is simply not realistic and the answer is instead to concentrate on using NSW’s “world-class” tracing systems to track and close down any outbreaks. Those who may have come into contact with any cases identified are asked to self-isolate for 14 days even if they test negative.

        According to a blunt NSW Premier, people could expect more public health alerts for venues and businesses throughout Thursday as contact tracing continued and that more cases would occur.

        “If you’re asked to get tested and stay home for 14 days, please do that,” she said. “Do not take this lightly,we need to get on top of this.”

        Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also insists his government is following a policy of suppression of the virus rather than elimination. Yet he remains firmly attached to his formula of killing the virus by killing almost all economic activity and movement indefinitely. It’s a mass assault rather than a targeted one.

        So he repeatedly insists any opening up before local transmission of the virus is defeated will mean all the sacrifices and pain Victorians have suffered over so many months will have been in vain. But unlike Berejiklian, he is not asking people to self-isolate at home if they have been in contact with an outbreak if they initially test negative. According to the Victorian Premier, checking on whether people are obeying would divert too many resources.

        “I don’t want people sitting at home for 14 days when there’s no good scientific reason for them to do that,” he said. Such logic is particularly curious given all Melburnians – other than a small minority of permitted workers – need to do just that for 22 hours a day anyway. I don’t think it’s just my recent few weeks in Sydney providing a different perspective on Victoria’s approach.

  4. Paul
    The newish UK government sponsored study that finds that lockdowns actually either make no difference to total deaths or are likely to increase the total number is understandably getting a lot of attention.

  5. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    let us examine just one of these assertions. That mental health costs are too great.

    Hang on a minute. Adopt Herd immunity and you are in the cross hairs.
    you might die if you have pre-conditions. This will occur even if you are under 70!
    The elderly are vulnerable, so are those with disabilities and then of course we have the aborigines.
    most of those do not live in their own housing whether owned or renting.

    now what about the mental health of waiting to get herd immunity. This policy takes a hellva lot longer than a lockdown.
    Lots a children and grandchildren unable to visit their parents/ grandparents.
    Of course you could die, have long terms symptoms that could mean you die in your 50s/60s and then of course you might be so affected you simply cannot work because you are so tired.

    The economy would be affected as well but without the government support we see now.

    Employers would have my sympathy .There would be no tests so how do they fulfil their legal obligations and ensure no employees have the virus.

    What a great policy

    Sounds a recipe for increasing suicides

    • Hmm if lockdowns are the only way, then the only way lockdowns can truly end is when we have herd immunity either via a vaccine or by ‘herd immunity’.
      And if it’s true that immunity is short lived say six months to a year then the herd immunity conferred by a vaccine will also be short lived.
      Therefore lockdowns are simply the more costly ,more drawn-out way of arriving at the same conclusion .

      • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

        wrong it would be much longer.
        Why go for a vaccine?

        no lockdown means fewer much fewer people get the virus and therefore die.
        you then wait for the vaccine.

        Less costly in economic terms in deaths as well.

      • Conrad says:

        There’s no reason immunity from vaccines will last an identical time to immunity from catching the virus. It could be shorter or longer.

        Also, if we can re-get the virus every 6 months, that’s a serious amount of brain damage that’s going to be going around across people’s lives.

    • In short herd immunity offers hope that all this will end , lockdowns in contrast offer the prospect of ‘no hope of a end in sight for god knows how long’.
      Hope along with faith and love are critical to human happiness.

      • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

        it offers no hope .
        People would be frightful of dying or getting any long term problems from the virus.
        In Australia we would be looking at deaths in the six figures very easily with specialists having to choose who goes to the ICU and who does not.

    • I repeat
      the truth about lockdowns is either they simply delay for a few months,the inevitable, or the lockdowns must continue on and off, until some kind of miracle such as a vaccine turns up . And that could well be years from now, if ever.

  6. paul frijters says:

    Some more reflections on this declaration, from the point of view of those drawing up such declarations:

    1. Its a very tricky balancing act they clearly got near perfect. They had to say something definite, some policy and action they were in favour of, something that Western governments were clearly not doing. And yet otherwise they had to be a small target, not giving a thousand details to criticise. So the key phrase and idea is to encourage the low risk to get the virus. That is the key thing policy makers and the fear mongers are saying should not happen. Its the defining difference that’s the wedge. On all other dimensions, its a small target.
    2. The advice on what to do with nursing homes/ old age homes is interesting. I would not have put it in because it is sort of clunky and a bit silly because much of it is unworkable. And yet it works from a marketing point of view. It gives the semblance of policy, the idea that they are calling for protection of the old, whereas really that is not the heart of their advice, as it is not the heart of the policies of governments either. As governments pretend its about saving granny, so these authors play that same game in giving some pointers about protecting granny. They dont really know, but they are responding to others who dont know either. Its just enough to get lukewarm backers who were seduced by the earlier “save granny” bs to be onside and to deflect the most obvious criticisms.
    3. The absence of numbers. No estimates of the damage of lockdowns and social distancing. No estimate of short-term numbers saved or lost by their broad policies. The people drawing up this declaration are numbers experts and live among numbers their whole lives, but are not talking numbers here at all. Deliberately. Its again a small target strategy. The number ambiguity allows more to align themselves.
    4. The link to libertarians, ie the IAER. Its clearly unwanted by the chief signatories, but someone has to foot the bill. I know the conundrum. If the cause is big enough, one is not picky about the fellow travelers.
    5. The pompous name. GREAT Barrington Declaration. Really? REAL BIG Declaration. Right. One can say its the name of the place and they are just playing on the public’s respect for Big and GREAT things, but still. I would have preferred something like the “Herd Immunity Declaration”.

  7. hc says:

    A question is whether societies can continue to operate successfully with low or zero levels of infection before herd immunity or high levels of resistance to COVID-19 arise. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand manage to do this. They are all totalitarian societies or countries with high levels of social cohesion. The latter attribute doesn’t always work so well – Japan with hiigh social cohesion has done less well.

    In more individualistic socieies an issue is the “infection paradox”: As levels of the infection get low people get slack in maintaining social distancing/mask-wearing and governments relax controls too far – partly due to public pressure.

    A current instance is NSW where no cases were recorded for 12 days then 8 new community transmissions occurred in 1 day with 1 having an unknown source. Can such an outbreak be cost-effectively contained using track-and-trace?

    If so then we can live with the virus.

    • Taiwan is a democracy ,they do have reasonable faith in their governments abilities.

    • Saupreiss says:

      Japan has done quite reasonably well although it has gone through a strong second wave after the article that follows was posted; they have only about on tenths the deaths per million that, say, Germany has so far and about one fiftieth of what the US, UK, France, Italy, Spain , etc have:

    • paul frijters says:

      The experiences of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan are interesting but people put too much emphasis on their policies (which were often very light-touch). I suspect the main reason for their low case and death numbers is that they had a high degree of prior immunity. After all, its the part of the world where many of these viruses originated.
      We are awaiting large-scale T-cel studies to confirm or disprove this for these countries, but we do have a study for Singapore where they found about 50% T-cel coverage of the type that gave a high degree of protection. The significance of that is that it means the virus burns out much quicker in those societies. Its like they are forest with lots of waterways in it. Fires cant get so big then.

      • Conrad says:

        I suspect the main reason is they are used to tropical diseases and/or are socialized in ways so they don’t spread things as much. As someone that has worked in Marseille, which is extremely dirty by Aus standards and has lots of people that don’t respects rules or each other, it doesn’t surprise me that cases have gone through the roof. As someone that has also worked in HK, I’m only mildy surprised that they have been able to control it even in the middle of a fight against a worse enemy (the CCP).

        • Conrad says:

          That’s a testable claim incidentally — one could compare the prevalence of other yearly nasties per head of population, and you should find that they would be less in places like Japan and Taiwan than France or the UK (If I get time I’ll see if I can find some data).

        • paul frijters says:

          yes I was enamoured of the tropical disease idea too for a while until about May when we started seeing these relatively high numbers for Brazil, the Ischtmus, and basically the whole of the Americas. Cant get more tropical than Manaus and still they have a 0.1% fatality rate with a fairly young population.

          So its not the weather, other diseases, or the climate.

          • Conrad says:

            Yes, I wasn’t sure whether people in the Americas just put up with getting sick more in those regions (say, unlike parts of Asia). I can certainly think of tropical areas which are particularly dirty (Nepal).

            As a simpler way to answer this question, I looked up Switzerland where even the airport was clean (cf. CDG Paris), and they look like they’re getting a second spike like many other places in Europe, so I have falsified myself :).

  8. Sorry Melbourne. The chance of reaching an average five COVID-19 cases by mid-October is less than half

    The problem with lockdowns is that they can only truly end when herd immunity is achieved .The odds that a effective vaccine in the quantities needed will be available before 2022 are not good. And the same logical problem applies to hopes for elimination in Australia , pragmatically we even if we could completely eliminate all local cases the odds that embers from close neighbours would eventually land and start the bloody thing all over again are close to 100 percent given enough time.
    Therefore lockdowns and elimination as a strategy are a non strategy, unsustainable and must only increase the costs and harms . And worse still must eventually lead to a collapse of pub morale.

  9. hc says:

    John states:

    “Therefore lockdowns and elimination as a strategy are a non-strategy, unsustainable and must only increase the costs and harms ”

    John has made a series of unsupported claims and from this deduces this conclusion. In a number of countries elimination or maintenance at low levels has been achieved. I cited these above. Can track-and-trace be adapted to work successfully in Australia? It has worked so far in all states except Victoria which also now looks more promising even there. You don’t know when a vaccine will arrive – before or after 2022. If it does arrive early then a lot of suffering will be avoided by not pursuing herd immunity – this possibility is a real source of value. Close neighbors tourists/students can be quarantined when they enter Australia and/or simple quick tests may evolve that avoid lengthy quarantine periods – again a source of possible value.

    OK so I have offered only questions or possibilities rather than definite conclusions but making strong assertions and deducing conclusions from these does not really improve on an open-ended approach.

    The basic question: Can we sustain an equilibrium with low numbers infected. There are some grounds for supposing we can. Most of the hard work in getting numbers low has been done and, as a sunk cost, can be ignored now.

    France and England have 14-18000 cases daily now. Are they so much better off than we are? Will they eventually emerge stronger or weaker?

    • Taiwan is the only nation to have achieved elimination. It
      is simply a logical thing that lockdowns can only end if herd immunity ,or elimination has been achieved , and neither seems likely .

      Maintenance at low levels is ,I think ,the best real world option for Australia .
      However there are many problems : particularly a significant section of our polity have nailed their colours to elimination. And the practical problems of processing say ten thousand arrivals a month are not significant.

      Our situation is obviously not that typical of nations that are not island continents at the arse end of the world.
      As for the UK as best as I know the steep rise in cases has not resulted in a matching rise in hospital admissions or deaths .

    • Hc
      To ( slightly)paraphrase V S Naipaul facts can be arranged to tell whatever suits, whereas fiction always tells the truth , sort off.

      “ An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.”

  10. hc says:

    Two statements from John:

    S1: “The problem with lockdowns is that they can only truly end when herd immunity is achieved”

    S2 “Maintenance at low levels is ,I think ,the best real world option for Australia”.

    S1 suggests that herd immunity is an inevitable equilibrium even under lockdown. S2 that maintenance of the virus at low levels is the best equilibrium.

    What are you saying?

  11. Honest Bob says:

    It is concerning that, in the history of man, only smallpox has ever been eradicated. Nothing else. So this virus could be with us for eternity, or at least until new technology (better than a vaccine) is developed. Actually I’m sure this will happen – an anti-viral drug will end this, not a vaccine. There is already a lot of favorable evidence for ivermectin, and recent research has identified many other molecules that can block or kill the virus: see This too shall pass…

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