• Health Secretary Alex Azar met with three doctors who support herd immunity
  • The meeting was also attended by Trump adviser Scott Atlas
  • The doctors noted that the approach could help avoid lockdowns and other measures that hurt the economy
  • Some medical experts have termed the approach "unethical"
  • Sweden tried the herd-immunity approach and failed, has per-capita death toll among highest in the world

Is the Trump administration toying with the idea of herd immunity as the coronavirus ranges untamed across the country? A top health official's meeting with a group of doctors who are known advocates of the controversial approach to curbing the coronavirus pandemic has sparked off speculation that may be the case.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar invited three epidemiologists studying infectious diseases — Hardvard professor Martin Kulldorff, Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta and Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya — for a meeting Monday, which was also attended by Trump adviser Scott Atlas.

In September, Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, found himself in the eye of a controversy for allegedly suggesting the herd immunity strategy, which some experts have termed "unethical," to President Trump. He had denied those allegations

During the meeting, the three doctors told Azar that allowing COVID-19 to infect and spread among young, healthy people could help build enough population immunity to stop the virus from spreading widely. They noted that the approach would help the U.S. avoid lockdown and other mitigation measures that are hurting the economy, The Hill reported.

"We had a very good discussion. He asked many questions, and we put forth our case to protect the people who are vulnerable, and the idea of trying to do lockdowns to eliminate this disease is not realistic," the publication reported Kulldorff as saying.

Herd immunity is achieved when a large part of the population develops immunity to a virus, either by surviving an infection or getting a vaccine shot, says Web MD. The more contagious the virus is, the more people need to develop the immunity for the approach to work.

Experts say over 70% of a community’s population would have to develop immunity to a virus to have herd protection. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers in a hearing in late September that more than 90% of the U.S. population remains susceptible to infection.

White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said only 22% of the population of New York, which has been severely impacted by the coronavirus, have been exposed — a figure well under what is needed for herd immunity, CNBC reported.

Other experts have argued that allowing the coronavirus to spread uncontrollably would lead to largescale deaths, illness and hospitalization — even with vulnerable people being isolated from the rest of the population.

Tourists wearing face masks walk by the Trevi fountain in Rome. Italy, France, Spain and Germany have seen a spike in virus cases as the pandemic rebounds across Europe -- often due to travel, summer holidays and parties
Tourists wearing face masks walk by the Trevi fountain in Rome. Italy, France, Spain and Germany have seen a spike in virus cases as the pandemic rebounds across Europe -- often due to travel, summer holidays and parties AFP / Vincenzo PINTO

Sweden has previously tested the herd immunity strategy against COVID-19; its government was among a handful that refused to implement a lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. Tom Britton, a math professor who helped develop a prediction model for the country's Public Health Agency, had forecast that 25% of the population would be infected by May 1.

But he later said there could be a mistake in the calculations. A study conducted in April end showed that only 7.3% of Stockholm residents had developed coronavirus antibodies, much lower than expected. Sweden's approach led to it having a per capita death toll among the highest in the world from the virus.

A large-scale, three-phase clinical study conducted by Spanish researchers also confirmed that herd immunity from COVID-19 is a myth. Dr. Isabella Eckerle, head of the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases; and Dr. Benjamin Meyer, a virologist at the University of Geneva, wrote in the medical journal Lancet that "any proposed approach to achieve herd immunity through natural infection is not only highly unethical, but also unachievable."

Trump adviser Atlas said that he attended the meeting and supports the herd immunity approach. “Their targeted protection of the vulnerable and opening schools and society policy matches the policy of the president and what I have advised,” he wrote to The Hill.

As of Oct. 6, the U.S. has reported more than 7.4 million coronavirus cases and over 210,000 deaths, data compiled by the Johns Hopkins University showed.