A number of emails from a former science adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) showcases how some in the Trump administration have, for several months, pushed for and promoted the idea of so-called natural “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity is the idea that if a large enough proportion of a community develops antibodies for a particular virus, it significantly reduces the virus’s ability to spread. Typically achieved through vaccinations, the threshold for herd immunity is reached when between 80 and 90 percent of the population has been exposed to a virus.
Herd immunity can be reached in another, more controversial way: naturally, by allowing a virus to flourish without making attempts to quell its spread. Doing so, however, typically comes at great human cost, and many health experts have likened the idea to eugenics. Countries that have attempted to use natural herd immunity to deal with COVID-19 have seen that it failed to work, costing more lives than would have been lost had they implemented other methods like social distancing measures and the wearing of masks.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
According to emails obtained by Congress, former HHS science adviser Paul Alexander, who served under HHS assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo up until the end of this past summer, was regularly pressing officials in the Trump administration to accept this controversial idea.
“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD,” Alexander wrote to Caputo and six other senior officials in an email on July 4.
Alexander expressed a desire to purposely allow children to get infected.
“Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk … so we use them to develop herd … we want them infected,” Alexander insisted.
In a second email, sent 20 days later to Caputo, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, and eight other officials, Alexander repeated his thoughts on purposely infecting “kids and young folk” in order to get “natural immunity.”
And in an email sent on July 27, he complained to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Robert Redfield about failing to try and infect more young individuals with coronavirus.
“We essentially took off the battlefield the most potent weapon we had … younger healthy people, children, teens, young people who we needed to fastly [sic] infect themselves, spread it around, develop immunity, and help stop the spread,” Alexander said.
While it’s true that children and younger adults are less susceptible to the detrimental effects of coronavirus, they are not 100 percent safe from it either. Beyond not being as safe from the virus as Alexander made them out to be, children pose another problem when it comes to coronavirus: they are just as likely to contract it, albeit perhaps without symptoms in most cases, and spread it to others as much as any other age group. Thus, children can unwittingly endanger people they come in contact with, especially older populations that are at higher risk and those who have compromised immune systems..
A spokesperson from HHS said that Alexander’s views on herd immunity “absolutely did not” shape strategy within the department on COVID-19. However, former CDC chief of staff Kyle McGowan, who left his position in the summer, suggested otherwise, while speaking to Politico on the matter.
“It was understood that [Alexander] spoke for Michael Caputo, who spoke for the White House, McGowan said. “That’s how they wanted it to be perceived.”
Alexander left his position at HHS in September, following reports that he and others in the department attempted to interfere with a CDC report on coronavirus morbidity. The alterations were meant to help fit Trump’s narratives on the pandemic, and sought to retroactively change reports that the president thought wrongly inflated the risks associated with the virus.
Among the complaints Alexander had with the reports he sought to alter, he wrote in an email that Redfield and the CDC “tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school re-opening.”
The White House has long claimed that it is not promoting the concept of natural herd immunity as a means to deal with COVID-19. However, the actions of several officials in the administration, as well as those of President Donald Trump himself, seem to suggest otherwise.
In October, for instance, members of the White House promoted a petition that was allegedly signed by thousands of doctors who embraced the idea of herd immunity. The petition, however, included fake names, many of them based on pranks, like Dr. I.P. Freely, Dr. Person Fakename and Dr. Johnny Bananas.
Just last week, Trump also appeared to endorse herd immunity when he suggested at a White House vaccine event that millions of Americans getting infected with coronavirus was somehow a good development.
“I hear we’re close to 15 percent, I’m hearing that, and that’s terrific, that’s a very powerful vaccine in itself,” Trump claimed.
Reaching that threshold came at a tremendous cost, however, as nearly 17 million Americans have contracted the virus so far, many of them still dealing or likely to deal with the long term effects of COVID-19 for quite some time. As of Wednesday afternoon, 305,934 Americans have died from COVID-19 as well.