Why Dr. Fauci Thinks COVID-19 Herd Immunity Is "Total Nonsense"

It's not a substitute for safety precautions and a vaccine, he says.

dr. anthony fauci
Photo: Getty / GRAEME JENNINGS / Contributor

Immunity is an important part of our body's natural defense system. As we've explained here on EatingWell before, thanks to white blood cells, healthy, properly functioning and non-suppressed immune systems are actually quite effective at fighting off bacteria and viruses on their own. We can do a little to move the needle by eating a well-balanced diet of immune-supporting foods, making sure our micronutrient needs are covered and scoring enough sleep, but no food or supplement will act as a cure for humans who have been infected from the coronavirus.

Still, vitamin C-rich foods and drinks, including orange juice, flew off shelves early on during the pandemic as people tried to seek a natural preventative measure for this new virus. Others suggested a collective immunity approach, which you may have heard referenced as "herd immunity."

In historical public health terms, this concept has referred to a time when enough people are vaccinated against a specific illness so it stops spreading around a community. More recently, though, since no vaccine has been fully developed and proven to be effective for COVID-19 yet, some have tried to promote the idea of herd immunity in a different way.

These individuals claimed that allowing the virus to run rampant throughout an area would be a "compassionate" way to try to control the impact of the pandemic through "focused protection." This idea is the guiding principle behind the Great Barrington Declaration, a report that argues we should be protecting the most high-risk populations while not enacting wide-ranging lockdowns or stay-home orders for the rest of a community.

Essentially, without a vaccine, a belief in herd immunity means, "we're all going to get it anyway. Let's just get infected, get it over with and build up the immunity within our bodies. We'll bounce back just fine then not have to deal with it anymore!" Think of this similar to a 2020 version of this chicken pox parties at which kids would share the viral infection so they wouldn't be at risk for a more severe case later in life.

This hypothesis has raised red flags, however, for many in the medical community, including Anthony Fauci, M.D., the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a member of the coronavirus task force. He addressed this on a recent Good Morning America interview:

"That declaration has a couple things in it that I think are fooling people," Fauci said during the GMA segment. "We don't want to shut down the country; I say that all the time. We certainly want to protect the vulnerable. However, hidden in there is the implication that if you let people get infected and worry about essentially protecting the vulnerable...there's about 30% of the population has an underlying condition that makes them more susceptible to getting the adverse events and outcomes of serious disease with COVID-19."

Fauci said that if we all just stop wearing masks or begin gathering in large crowds, there will be many people in the community that can't be protected. He said, "This idea that we have the power to protect the vulnerable is total nonsense, because history has shown that's not the case." It's risky and will lead to many more hospitalizations and deaths, he continued. "You have to look that square in the eye and say, 'it's nonsense.'"

We also still aren't quite sure how long coronavirus immunity lasts. While antibodies are found in many people who have been infected, some reports of reinfection are already emerging so more research is needed.

As of October 23, more than 222,000 Americans have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the latest CDC data. Christopher L.J. Murray, M.D., Director of the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), estimates that about 1 million U.S. deaths might be in the cards if we rely on a herd immunity approach.

The only real solution for large-scale immunity appears to lie in a safe, approved vaccine. Until that is developed (and likely for months after, per guidance from the World Health Organization), our best bet for staying healthy and slowing the spread is to continue wearing face coverings, washing our hands, practicing ample physical distancing and limiting close contact—especially indoors and unmasked—with those outside of our households.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.

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