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These leaked COVID-19 emails from the Trump administration are truly horrifying

December 17th, 2020 at 3:35 PM
Herd immunity
  • Newly disclosed emails show that a Trump official was prodding other members of the administration to support natural herd immunity as a response to the coronavirus pandemic earlier this summer.
  • This strategy can be achieved by widespread vaccinations — but also by exposing as many people as possible to the coronavirus so that a natural immune response is developed.
  • Regarding the latter, this is considered an extremely controversial coronavirus strategy, because it would entail millions of people getting sick and many dying unnecessarily.

A week after the FDA swiftly granted an emergency use authorization to Pfizer so that its coronavirus vaccine candidate could start being distributed around the country and injected into patients, the agency is again poised to do the same for another drugmaker. On Friday, a similar authorization is expected for the coronavirus vaccine candidate from Moderna, which will add millions more doses of vaccines to those that have already begun to be distributed and administered in most of the country. Slowly but surely, these vaccines will remove people from the potential chain of coronavirus transmission, such that White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this week that the US might start to see the early stages of herd immunity against the coronavirus by the late spring or early summer. “I would say 50% would have to get vaccinated before you start to see an impact,” Fauci said. “But I would say 75% to 85% would have to get vaccinated if you want to have that blanket of herd immunity.”

Speaking of that so-called “herd immunity” strategy, where a critical mass of people is finally protected against the coronavirus and can essentially stop the pandemic in its tracks, vaccines aren’t the only way to achieve that goal. That can also be achieved the hard — and horrifying — way. By tens of millions of people just getting sick, some of whom will get over the virus and some won’t.

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This particular herd immunity approach, in fact, was called for earlier this year by a Trump administration official, per a batch of emails made public this week. “We want them infected,” an underling of US Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo wrote in a July 4 email. “There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about (by) allowing the non-high risk groups (to) expose themselves to the virus.”

The email, obtained by Politico, was penned by then-science advisor Paul Alexander and sent to Caputo as well as six other Trump officials.

It may be, Alexander continued in a July 24 email (this time to FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn), “that it will be best if we open and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected.” The purpose here would be to achieve “natural immunity … natural exposure” to the coronavirus. And, in a July 27 email to CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, Alexander pressed all these points further — this time, he wondered aloud whether colleges should remain open for the express purpose of allowing the coronavirus to spread on campus. “We essentially took off the battlefield the most potent weapon we had,” Alexander wrote. “Younger healthy people, children, teens, young people who we needed to … infect themselves, spread it around, develop immunity, and help stop the spread.”

Of course, this strategy’s flaws are revealed when one simply looks at the reality in the US today. According to the latest stats from Johns Hopkins University, the US on Wednesday set new records for coronavirus cases and deaths  — more than 247,000 new infections reported, as well as more than 3,600 deaths. Meantime, a record-shattering 113,000 people are hospitalized in the US at the moment with the coronavirus, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project. In other words, the US isn’t even actively pursuing Alexander’s ideas, and look at the cost of our current response so far.

This idea of deliberately exposing people to the coronavirus was en vogue among especially conservatives for a period of time this year — and for some of them, it still is — partly because it offers a justification for opening the economy. However, the Trump administration Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar shot this notion down during an October hearing before the coronavirus subcommittee of the US House of Representatives. “Herd immunity,” Azar stressed, “is not the strategy of the US government with regard to coronavirus.”

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Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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