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Trump advisers consult scientists pushing disputed herd immunity strategy

Mainstream medical and public health experts say that seeking widespread, or herd, immunity in the manner the scientists prescribe could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions more U.S. residents.

The trio, who Azar described as “three distinguished infectious disease experts,” favors moving aggressively to reopen the economy while sidelining broad testing and other fundamental public health measures. “Three months, maybe six is sufficient time for enough immunity to accumulate … that the vulnerable could resume normal lives,” Gupta said Monday night in appearance on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.

That aligns with the “herd-immunity” strategy endorsed by Atlas, who Bhattacharya said was their “point of contact” for the meeting. Atlas, a neuroradiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has emerged as a favored adviser to the president despite his lack of expertise in public health, infectious disease or epidemiology, and his skepticism of basic safety measures like wearing masks.

HHS refused to comment on the scientists’ meeting with Azar and Atlas’ role in it, or whether the Trump administration is shifting to a herd immunity strategy.

Studies by the CDC and academic scientists have concluded that fewer than 10 percent of Americans had antibodies to the virus by July. That’s far fewer than the 60 to 70 percent infection rate most experts believe is needed to achieve herd immunity. They say that getting there without a vaccine would dramatically increase the Covid-19 death toll and leave a large number of Americans with lasting health problems.

Given those facts, Azar’s tweet set off alarm bells among public health experts worried that the administration is pushing a return to normal life before the virus is contained or a vaccine is available.

“This is not a good faith attempt to talk to experts. This is an attempt to cherry pick credentialed people who happen to agree with the administration’s political instincts or political inclinations,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Obama administration official who oversaw disaster response.

The scientists who met with Azar have repeatedly advanced questionable theories about the virus’ risks and the impact of lockdowns.

Bhattacharya co-authored a study with colleagues at Stanford that suggested the coronavirus infection rate was up to 85 percent higher in Silicon Valley than previously estimated, suggesting that the virus was not nearly deadly enough to justify continued lockdowns.

The analysis, released in April without undergoing peer review, quickly came under attack from other scientists who questioned the accuracy of the antibody test used in the study, and the authors’ research methods — which included recruiting participants through Facebook and social contacts of the scientists, raising the risk of an unrepresentative sample.

Bhattacharya and his colleagues revised the study’s findings just two weeks after they released it, reducing their projection of how many people had been infected by one-third.

Across the pond, Gupta and colleagues in her Oxford research group opposed the stringent lockdown orders the U.K. imposed in March, arguing at the time that “the death rate or the