The ‘Great Barrington declaration’ makes claims about herd immunity that its signatories have failed to back up
A ski resort once crowned “the best small town in America” may seem an unlikely venue for three scientists to issue an edict about the global response to a pandemic. But Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is the home of the libertarian thinktank the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which this month hosted a meeting to discuss “the global emergency created by the unprecedented use of state compulsion”.
The result was “the Great Barrington declaration”, which prompted headlines about the disintegrating scientific consensus that managing Covid-19 requires society-wide changes to behaviour. It is a sorry parable about what happens when bad science gets co-opted by shady ideological interests.
The declaration, which calls for an immediate resumption of “life as normal” for everyone except the “vulnerable”, is written by three science professors from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, giving it the sheen of academic respectability. But there is much to set alarm bells ringing. It makes claims about herd immunity – the idea that letting the virus rip among less vulnerable groups will allow a degree of population-level immunity to build up which will eventually protect the more vulnerable – that are unsupported by existing scientific evidence. The professors do not define who is “vulnerable”, nor do they set out a workable plan for shielding them. The declaration sets itself up against a straw proposal that nobody is arguing for – a full-scale national lockdown until a vaccine is made available. There is no acknowledgement of the massive scientific uncertainty that exists with a new disease.