WASHINGTON, D.C. — A White House medical adviser is reportedly pushing for a “herd immunity” strategy for the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, wants the United States to adopt a herd-immunity model similar to what Sweden has used, five people familiar with the discussions told The Washington Post.
Herd immunity requires a large percentage of the population to contract a virus, giving it little opportunity to spread because so many people would have built up antibodies. While estimates vary, experts generally say in the ballpark of 70% of the population would need to be infected to achieve herd immunity.
Atlas, who joined the White House as a pandemic adviser in August but does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, is reportedly advocating for lifting restrictions on social distancing and businesses while taking steps to protect nursing homes and other vulnerable populations.
The Post reported that experts inside and outside the government are concerned the White House is even discussing the approach because it could result in hundreds of millions of infected Americans and potentially millions of deaths.
Atlas said Monday he has “never advocated that strategy.” He also said the Post never reached out to him for comment, although the newspaper insisted it requested interviews through the White House press office on three different days but was turned down.
White House communications director Alyssa Farah said there is no change in the Trump administration’s approach toward combating the pandemic, adding that the president is focused on defeating the virus “through therapeutics and ultimately a vaccine.”
A senior administration official, however, told CNN that everything Atlas "says and does points toward herd immunity."
In a July interview with Fox News, Atlas said: “When younger, healthier people get the disease, they don’t have a problem with the disease. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult for everyone to acknowledge.”
But infectious-disease experts note that more than 25,000 people younger than 65 have died of the virus in the United States. And doctors are reporting seeing long-term heart damage in patients who have recovered from COVID-19, even younger people.
Sweden’s strategy has been praised by some conservatives because it imposed far fewer restrictions than other countries. Sweden, however, still has a per-capita mortality rate that is slightly higher than the United States’ and recorded its largest single-quarter GDP drop in 40 years this spring.