Fauci Cautions Against Herd Immunity Through Widespread Infection: 'You're Going to Wind Up With a Lot of Dead People'

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious diseases expert, cautioned against using herd immunity through widespread infection as a means of controlling the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that "you're going to wind up with a lot of dead people."

Fauci, who is a member of the White House's COVID-19 task force, spoke with host Margaret Hoover during an appearance on PBS' Firing Line Friday night. He discussed at length how the country is responding to the ongoing pandemic, including how the U.S. might eventually put the coronavirus to rest.

As one possibility, Hoover asked Fauci about the Great Barrington Declaration, a petition signed by more than 10,000 scientists suggesting that COVID-19 lockdowns are "producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health."

The petition, whose co-authors include medical professors at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford universities, argues instead for an approach called "focused protection." The method advocates for protecting the most vulnerable from coronavirus and that the rest of the population should "immediately be allowed to resume life as normal."

The White House has embraced the declaration, Hoover noted, but Fauci has said it is impossible to fully protect the country's most vulnerable population. While the immunologist said that imposing another round of lockdowns like the ones seen earlier this year is "not the solution," neither is the idea that the U.S. can suddenly save a "substantial proportion" of Americans.

The declaration, Fauci said, implies that state and health officials would "do nothing to block infection," like enforcing face mask mandates and social distancing measures, because the primary focus would be on creating measures to protect people in extended care facilities.

This is problematic because as much as 30 percent of the general population falls into the category of "vulnerable"—meaning they would face severe consequences if they are infected with coronavirus, including hospitalization and even death, Fauci said.

"So, if you think that you have the capability—which we have shown thus far we are not capable of doing that—of all of a sudden magically protecting all the obese people, the people with diabetes, the people with hypertension, the people with chronic lung disease," Fauci said, "I say, and many, many, many of my public health colleagues say, if you think you're going to do that, you're going to wind up with a lot of dead people.

"And that's something we really want to avoid."

The authors of the Great Barrington Declaration acknowledged that "all populations will eventually reach herd immunity," and that the goal should therefore be "to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity."

Fauci mentioned earlier in the interview that the idea of "building up herd immunity" by widespread infection "has a lot of danger to it," and also "isn't a surefire way" of prolonged protection, as the rate of reinfection isn't yet known.

Despite the declaration suggesting that mortality and social harm should be minimized until herd immunity is reached, one of the co-authors, Dr. Martin Kulldorff, previously told Newsweek via email that they "are not advocating a 'herd immunity strategy'."

"Herd immunity is not a strategy, but a scientifically proven phenomena, just like gravity, and you would not say that an airplane pilot is using a 'gravity strategy' to land a plane. No matter what strategy is used, we will reach herd immunity sooner or later, just as an airplane will reach the ground one way or another," Kulldorff wrote.

Anthony Fauci
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, testifies during a US Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine Covid-19, focusing on an update on the federal response in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2020. GRAEME JENNINGS/POOL/AFP/Getty

Fauci discussed the current state of the pandemic in the U.S., telling Hoover "we're not in a place where I would have hoped we would have been."

The U.S. is averaging 50,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, and the majority of states have seen increases in their case numbers within the past week. Fauci had hoped the country would've started to see the baseline level of daily infections at "even less than 10,000," but it seems the U.S. is headed "in the opposite direction."

The colder months of the fall and winter present new challenges for the pandemic, as more people head indoors where the virus has a better chance of spreading. "Whenever you are dealing with a respiratory infection, that always makes it more problematic," Fauci said.

The health official did offer some hope in the form of a vaccine, predicting that Americans would likely get an announcement by the end of the calendar year—but the degree of efficacy is not yet known.

Fauci predicted that "some aspect" of coronavirus is here to stay, that it's not "just going to disappear." But with a combination of good public health measures, implemented at the global level, and an effective vaccine taken by the majority of the population, "we could get the level of infection so low that...it peters out."

"I don't think we are going to eradicate it, but I think we can get much better control than we have right now with a universally implemented vaccine and good public health measures," Fauci said.

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