A string of disturbing emails from a senior Trump appointee has revealed a stated plan to pursue coronavirus herd immunity by deliberately exposing “infants, kids and teens” to Covid-19 in the United States.
Ousted scientific advisor at the US Department of Health and Human Services, Paul Alexander, repeatedly wrote to top health officials urging them to seek a herd immunity strategy.
“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," he wrote on July 4.
Those he viewed as low risk, he said he wanted them 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,” he wrote.
In a later email, he pushed the case urging health officials to protect the elderly but to “flood the zone” with the fit and healthy, speculating that the virus could be slowed or even burned out with antibodies in as little as 20 to 25 per cent of a given population. Experts typically put the threshold for herd immunity at 60 per cent and above.
“It may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected as we acutely lock down the elderly,” Alexander wrote. “We may be able to get 25 per cent antibodies ourselves by natural immunity... natural exposure.”
The emails were obtained by a House Oversight Committee's select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis in the US, and later published online by the subcommittee.
White House accused of ‘pernicious pattern’ of interference
Chairman of the committee, South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn, said the documents showed “a pernicious pattern of political interference by Administration officials.”
In a statement issued by Clyburn Wednesday (local time), he excoriated the White House for political interference.
“As the virus spread through the country, these officials callously wrote, ‘who cares’ and ‘we want them infected’. They privately admitted they ‘always knew’ the president’s policies would cause a ‘rise’ in cases, and they plotted to blame the spread of the virus on career scientists,” he said.
The controversial herd immunity debate
In the early days of the pandemic, debate raged in the media about the virtues of a potential herd immunity approach to the novel coronavirus. The UK adopted the policy before immediately backflipping amid uproar.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia in April, Nobel laureate and infectious disease expert Peter Doherty speculated that the Australian government was expecting to gain some benefits of infection by keeping schools open.
“In a way we have almost been too successful because the level of community transmission looks really low, so we’re not getting a lot of people immune basically,” Prof Doherty said.
“I think the strategy here has always been to protect old people and those with comorbidities, but have a reasonable level of infection that would gradually build up immunity.”
As the pandemic rolled on and big questions remained about the level of immunity following infection, most government health officials around the world backed well away from advocating a herd immunity approach.
Trump’s long history of promising herd immunity
At the time of the emails from Trump’s appointee putting pressure on health officials, the US administration was already playing a desperate game of catch-up in its pandemic response, with the virus already heavily established in the community.
Donald Trump, for his part, has continued to claim that herd immunity in the United States is just around the corner, declaring at a pre-election event in September: “you’ll develop like a herd mentality, it’s going to be herd developed, and that’s going to happen”.
For more than nine months, beginning in February, the US president has promised Americans the virus is disappearing.
One Texas congressman has even taken the liberty to catalogue a damning timeline of Trump’s endless coronavirus boasts as the death toll ticked over.
Following his own Covid-19 diagnosis, he stood on the balcony of the White House in October 10 and made another grand declaration about the coronavirus: “It’s going to disappear. It is disappearing.”
At the time of writing, more than 307,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the US, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.
At nearly 17 million cases, the country has almost twice as many known Covid-19 cases as the next closest country, India.
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