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Herd Immunity Will Not Defeat COVID-19

Although White House officials deny that US President Donald Trump's administration has adopted herd immunity as a strategy for combating COVID-19, Trump's words and actions tell a different story. But with coronaviruses, such an approach is not and should never be an option.

NEW YORK – During a September 15 ABC News “town hall”-style event, US President Donald Trump told host George Stephanopoulos that without a vaccine, COVID-19 would still “go away.” Over time, Trump said, “You’ll develop herd – like a herd mentality. It’s going to be – it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen.”

What Trump was referring to, and misnamed, is herd immunity, which a population develops when so many of its members are infected by or vaccinated against a given contagion that a bulwark of resistance counters the contagion’s spread. But to base a pandemic-response strategy on the assumption that herd immunity is inevitable – vaccine or no vaccine – is to afford a virus a path of least resistance. That was the case in Sweden, where policymakers decided to forego lockdowns and business closures in favor of more lenient advisories on mask-wearing and social distancing.

Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s subsequent COVID-19 infection and fatality rates were among the world’s highest. Moreover, the Swedish economy contracted by 8.6% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the previous three months – an important outcome to note given the emphasis that many proponents of herd immunity place on reviving economic growth. One such supporter is Scott Atlas, a recently appointed pandemic adviser to Trump who has advocated for the so-called Swedish model on Fox News.

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