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The White House is embracing a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would allow COVID-19 to spread freely and is widely disputed by scientists



Steven Mnuchin wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump at a briefing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the coronavirus advisor Scott Atlas in August. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images


© BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
President Donald Trump at a briefing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the coronavirus advisor Scott Atlas in August. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

  • White House officials say the administration is warming to a controversial herd-immunity strategy advocated in a document called the Great Barrington Declaration. 
  • Under the strategy, those not particularly vulnerable to serious infections are allowed to live normally while the vulnerable are shielded.
  • The document is widely criticized by scientists and emphatically rejected by the World Health Organization, the UK government, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The White House is embracing a controversial “herd immunity” strategy in response to the coronavirus, according to a briefing given by anonymous senior officials.

The strategy would allow the virus to spread freely with the belief that most of the population would develop a degree of immunity. It advocates shielding the more vulnerable to limit loss of life.

Two administration officials, who were not authorized to give their names, gave the briefing to media organizations including Business Insider.

They cited a controversial document, the Great Barrington Declaration, which was drawn up last week by Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University.

It has been signed by scientists and health experts across the world, but it has also drawn widespread criticism from public-health officials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, takes an opposite view of the virus, urging drastic action to limit its spread.

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Tuesday that a herd-immunity approach was “scientifically and ethically problematic.”

The UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, attacked the Great Barrington Declaration by name in Parliament on Tuesday

White House Outbreak May Have Spread Coronavirus To Other Communities : Shots

Numerous people have tested positive after attending an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on Sept. 26 to announce the nomination of Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

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Numerous people have tested positive after attending an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on Sept. 26 to announce the nomination of Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The White House’s apparent failures to thoroughly contact trace its current coronavirus outbreak has led local health officers to take matters into their own hands.

The District of Columbia and nine neighboring jurisdictions are calling on White House staff and visitors who might be connected to the recent outbreak there to contact their local health departments.

“We recommend that if you have worked in the White House in the past two weeks, attended the Supreme Court announcement in the Rose Garden on Saturday, September 26, 2020, and/or have had close contact with others who work in those spaces or attended those events, you should get a test for COVID,” the health officers wrote in a letter shared by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser early Thursday morning.

The authors note that this recommendation is being made based on “our preliminary understanding that there has been limited contact tracing performed to date.”

Thirty-seven White House staff and other contacts have tested positive, according to a website tracking the outbreak, citing public information such as media reports and tweets. Eleven of those positive cases are connected to the Amy Coney Barrett nomination event in the Rose Garden on September 26, according to the tracker, from which many attendees flew home to other states.

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Pence defends ‘outdoor’ Rose Garden event linked to coronavirus spread

Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday defended a Rose Garden event last month after which more than 30 people, including the president, tested positive for coronavirus.

The Sept. 26 event where President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the Supreme Court was outdoors, one tactic routinely touted by scientists to mitigate the virus, Pence said.

“That Rose Garden event, there’s been a great deal of speculation about it,” Pence said at the vice presidential debate. “My wife and I were honored to be there. Many people there were tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise.”

Few people at the event were wearing masks and there was little distance between people. Some guests interacted at gatherings both inside and outside the White House before and after the event.

“President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health,” Pence continued. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates, and not just mandates with the coronavirus, but a government takeover of health care.”

Since the event, which is widely referred to as a “superspreader” gathering, a number of attendees and top administration staff have tested positive, including the president and his wife, Melania Trump, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, adviser Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), to name a few.

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What the White House cluster reveals about virus’ spread

It wasn’t long after President Donald Trump and other Republicans were diagnosed with the coronavirus that people detected a common thread: All of them had been at the White House on Sept. 26.



Chris Christie et al. standing in front of a crowd


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Numerous people who attended the event to announce the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court are known to have caught the virus. Others close to people who tested positive at the event have since also caught the virus, some of whom initially tested negative for several days after the gathering.

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The emerging White House cluster is the kind of incident that infectious disease experts are focusing on as a crucial way to understand how the coronavirus spreads. They’re known as “superspreader” events.

“What gives rise to transmission is based on multiple factors, and you get the best and biggest superspreading events when all the stars align in the wrong way,” said Jamie Lloyd-Smith, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA.

As the pandemic has evolved, infectious disease experts have zeroed in on so-called superspreaders who are thought to play a major and disproportionate role in transmitting the virus.

Although pieces of the puzzle are still missing, understanding those broader patterns of transmission will help scientists pinpoint not only how the virus spreads, but also what public health strategies will be most effective to curb runaway outbreaks.

Did the White House conduct a super-spreader event?

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There is no official definition for superspreader events, but they are characterized by incidents that result in a large cluster of infections. In March, a Biogen corporate meeting in Boston is thought to have been linked to 20,000 Covid-19 cases, according to a study published to the preprint server medRxiv that has yet to be peer-reviewed.

What large gatherings can teach us about the spread of coronavirus

It’s looking increasingly likely that a Rose Garden event late last month was ground zero for a spate of coronavirus infections spreading among those with close ties to the White House, including President Trump himself.



a group of people jumping in the air


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Some 200 people gathered for the nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett on September 26.

So far, at least ten people who attended that event have tested positive for the virus, including the President, the first lady, Sen. Mike Lee from Utah and Sen. Thom Tillis from North Carolina, Trump’s debate sparring partner and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, megachurch pastor Greg Laurie, and John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, along with an unnamed journalist. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany joined the growing list Monday.

Others who recently spent time with people in this group (but did not attend the ceremony) have tested positive too, including Trump adviser Hope Hicks, as well as the Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and Trump’s assistant, Nicholas Luna.

Even though the ceremony was held outdoors and many attendees were tested before being allowed in, photos and videos of the event show few people wearing masks, many people greeting each other with hugs and handshakes, and people mingling and sitting very closely. If we have learned anything over the last few months, it’s that we should maintain physical distance with other people, keep our contact with them brief, and wear a mask.

But we may not know for a while what the exact consequences of the Rose Garden ceremony are, because it does not appear that the White House is conducting thorough contact tracing. That’s according to reports from attendees of the event, who say they either haven’t been contacted