On ‘herd immunity,’ vaccines, and pandemic whiplash

In mid-March, as the British government dragged its feet on implementing strict coronavirus lockdown measures that it would soon impose anyway, Patrick Vallance, the country’s chief scientific adviser, gave a series of interviews and discussed a concept with which many people were not then familiar: “herd immunity,” or the threshold at which enough members of a given population are immune to an infectious disease that the disease’s spread is controlled. Vallance—and, later, other officials—seemed to suggest that the government’s goal was to allow the virus to circulate while shielding only the most vulnerable against it. As The Atlantic’s Ed Yong put it at the time, the message appeared to be: “Keep calm and carry on… and get COVID-19.”

That notion met with a swift, fierce backlash, including among sections of the press—it was inhumane, critics charged, as well as being scientifically illiterate. Vallance and his colleagues quickly backtracked, insisting that letting the virus spread in the name of herd immunity wasn’t their plan, but merely a scientific concept; Matt Hancock, Britain’s health minister, insisted as much in an (initially paywalled) article for a right-wing newspaper. More charitable observers criticized the episode as merely a messaging disaster. (As one expert told Yong, “It’s been a case of how not to communicate during an outbreak.”) Others claimed that herd immunity actually was, at one point, Britain’s plan: In late March, the Sunday Times reported that Dominic Cummings, a controversial top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had privately summarized the government’s policy as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad,” before undergoing a “Domoscene conversion” and instead backing lockdown measures. What was clear was that the words “herd immunity” had become toxic in the public debate. In an unusually-stern rebuke, a government spokesperson called the Sunday Times story a “highly defamatory fabrication” and charged that it contained “invented” quotes.

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In the months that followed, as Britain shut down in a bid to beat back the virus, the concept of herd immunity receded from the media conversation. In other countries, including the US, the concept similarly took a backseat in mainstream coverage; when it was broached, it was mostly dismissed as fringe quackery. In right-wing American media, though, herd immunity continued to surface, usually as a supposed alternative to the tyranny of lockdown. In May, Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host, said that “healthy people” should have the “courage” to leave the house more, adding, “herd immunity is our friend.” (Hegseth was, of course, speaking from his home.) Normally, this would be so much babble—but the president is an avid consumer of right-wing media, and, seemingly as a consequence, the idea of herd immunity has, in recent months, wormed its way into the White House. In August, Trump appointed Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist he’d heard discussing the pandemic as a frequent guest on Fox, to serve as a White House health adviser. Quickly, we heard reports that Atlas was pushing Trump to adopt herd immunity as policy. This week, the Washington Post reported, in a big story, that Atlas has since “consolidated his power over the government’s pandemic response”—sidelining experts including Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx; pushing back on the need for more testing, masks, and social distancing; and continuing to push herd immunity. (Atlas “emphatically denied” to the Post that he “pursued or advocated for a wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity,” and accused the paper of “overt lies”; elsewhere, he has referred to the media as “contaminated.”)

The Post notes that Atlas’s denial “conflicts with his previous public and private statements,” including his recent endorsement of a document, known as “the Great Barrington Declaration,” that has exploded in right-wing media and driven herd immunity back into the mainstream conversation. Authored, earlier this month, by three scientists and signed by many more, the declaration—which grew out of an event hosted by a free-market think tank—advocates shielding high-risk individuals from COVID while those at low risk “live their lives normally.” A great many experts have spoken out against the document, calling its suggestions unethical and highly dangerous. While the elderly and those with comorbidities are at greater risk from COVID, young and (seemingly) healthy people routinely die from the disease, or experience severe symptoms that, in many cases, can persist for months. And the idea that a society can shield all its vulnerable members is, as Fauci told ABC recently, “total nonsense.”

When herd immunity strategies have been discussed by mainstream news outlets, such objections have usually been at the fore; it’s common to hear experts on TV news, for instance, decrying them, often while disparaging the credentials of Atlas and others. Speaking on CNN last week, William Haseltine, a former Harvard professor, said that “herd immunity is another word for mass murder”; a headline on a Times op-ed quoted Haseltine, and Lipi Roy, a medical contributor on MSNBC, used those words, too. Strong pushback on strategies with an intolerable human cost is welcome. There is a risk, though, that oversimplified statements about herd immunity obscure the fact that we do want to achieve it—albeit via a safe, working vaccine or vaccines, rather than any “let it rip” strategy. Much coverage has noted this nuance, but it doesn’t always make the headlines. And headlines, as we all know, matter.

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Understandably, the vaccine race has itself consumed a great deal of coverage in recent weeks. As The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang wrote this week, that’s unusual: pre-COVID, “clinical vaccine trials typically made news only when they were done—when scientists could definitively say, Yes, this one works or No, it doesn’t,” whereas now, “every step of the COVID-19 vaccine-development process comes under intense public scrutiny: This vaccine works in monkeys! It’s safe in the 45 people who have gotten it! The entire trial is on pause because one participant got sick, but we don’t know yet whether the person got a vaccine or a placebo!” Some good has come from this scrutiny, including, Zhang notes, some increased transparency on the part of drug companies. Still, the dynamic she describes, in which (in many cases) non-scientists in the media cover developments in ways that are out of proportion to their actual significance, can lead to whiplash. News consumers who aren’t following the various vaccine processes all that carefully might hear one moment that developers are working with an unprecedented degree of speed and sophistication, then learn of a dangerous-sounding setback the next.

All of the above points to problems for the press that, months into the pandemic, haven’t really abated. One of them is that we’re still all, ultimately, fumbling in the dark—yes, the science of COVID shines brighter than it did in March, but there’s still an awful lot of murk out there. We still don’t know exactly how many people have died from COVID, both in the US and globally; official figures, where they’re reliable at all, tend to lag, and different definitions of what a COVID death is can lead to significant discrepancies. In many places, testing capacity, while generally improved, still isn’t anywhere near adequate to illuminate the full extent of the virus’s spread; NBC reported yesterday, for example, that in six US states where confirmed cases are rising, the rate of testing has actually decreased over the past two weeks. Again, there’s much good coverage that prominently acknowledges the caveats in these numbers. But much coverage, too, is still relaying them more or less as fact, and without qualifiers like “confirmed.”

The continued uncertainty around COVID is not all problematic, necessarily: it’s a natural, often healthy, part of how science advances. The issue is more that the basic architecture of the news media remains unequipped to communicate this uncertainty. In the absence of hard facts, many journalists, especially on TV, elide doubts, or filter the story of the pandemic through the familiar certitudes of partisan politics—casting scientific debates as partisan fights, and lavishing outsized attention on the risky behavior of Trump and some of his supporters (and other apparent outbreaks of COVIDiocy) while the responsible conduct of millions is all but ignored. To be sure, the political right, and its allies in the press, bear most responsibility for this state of affairs. But as I’ve written before, many members of the mainstream media have embraced the resulting dynamic. If some nuance dies, too bad.

Below, more on COVID:

  • The death toll: Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, according to its calculations, the pandemic has caused nearly 300,000 more deaths than would be seen in the US in a normal year. Two-thirds of those deaths were a direct result of COVID-19, with the remainder resulting from other causes. According to a writeup in the Post, the CDC said COVID-19 “has taken a disproportionate toll on Latinos and Blacks, as previous analyses have noted,” and also found, “surprisingly, that it has struck 25- to 44-year-olds very hard” in terms of excess deaths.
  • Student journalism: The Daily Gamecock, a student newspaper at the University of South Carolina, has gone dark this week. In an editorial posted on Sunday, the paper’s staff explained that their decision to stop publishing content is a fulfillment of a prior commitment “to prioritize mental health not only in our coverage, but in our newsroom.” They continue, “With the recent shift to fully online reporting, we’ve had to adapt to new forms of communication and restructure procedure and content expectations. There was a general understanding that we were not well and that there was nothing we could do about it. We are choosing to disrupt that narrative.”
  • A win for Substack: Yesterday, Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist and writer for The Atlantic who has published several influential articles on the pandemic, announced that she’s launching a newsletter, called “Insight,” on Substack. The newsletter will aim to tackle “the complexity and the messy reality of the world” in a format that is “something between public writing and social media.” (ICYMI, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, profiled Tufekci and her COVID work earlier this year.)


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Trump abruptly ended an interview he was taping with Lesley Stahl, of 60 Minutes, and did not return for a second planned interview alongside Vice President Mike Pence, CNN reports. Afterward, Trump tweeted a video clip of Stahl failing to wear a mask in the White House, which, as well as being highly hypocritical, was apparently misleading. In other election news, the New Republic’s Alex Shephard argues that the media has fallen for recent anti-Trump remarks by Republican senators Ben Sasse and John Cornyn, who are “trying to con the public into believing they didn’t lick Trump’s boots for four years.” And for the Times, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, political scientists at Stony Brook University, make the case that focusing on partisan polarization obscures a bigger gulf—“between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t.”
  • The Justice Department, with the support of eleven Republican state attorneys general, is suing Google on antitrust grounds, alleging, in a landmark case, that the company’s search engine has unfairly captured the bulk of the US market. Google and other giants have faced bipartisan criticism in recent years, and Democratic state attorneys general could still join with the Justice Department or file a parallel suit, though it’s not certain that the case will proceed if Biden wins in November. A recent House antitrust report on big tech revealed partisan disagreements, as CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote at the time.
  • Digiday’s Steven Perlberg profiles The Atlantic, which is enjoying healthy subscription growth and a “red-hot editorial streak,” but also recently made layoffs amid declines in ad and events revenue. Its remaining staffers are “on edge,” Perlberg writes. Elsewhere, for the New Republic, David Klion reviewed an anthology that The Atlantic published to showcase its Trump-era journalism. The collection channels the magazine’s “tradition of reasonableness,” but Klion questions whether that tradition truly meets this moment.
  • David Plotz, a former leader at Slate and Atlas Obscura, is launching City Cast, a “national network of daily local podcasts” combining “essential local news with smart, delightful perspective about your community.” Elsewhere, Quake, a subscription podcast company offering shows by Laura Ingraham, Soledad O’Brien, and others, launched yesterday. Its model, Sara Fischer writes for Axios, “closely resembles digital radio.”
  • Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Democracy for the Arab World Now, a human-rights group that Khashoggi founded, have filed a federal lawsuit in the US seeking to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and two dozen codefendants personally liable for Khashoggi’s death. The suit alleges that MBS viewed Khashoggi as “an existential threat.” The Post has more.
  • As pro-democracy protests continued in Thailand, the government moved to shut down Voice TV, an outlet owned by the family of the country’s exiled former prime minister, on the grounds that it is “inciting unrest.” Voice TV intends to continue broadcasting pending a written order. Police are investigating three other outlets that have covered the protests.
  • On Monday, authorities in Kashmir ejected staff from the offices of the Kashmir Times, an English-language paper, and locked the building. Anuradha Bhasin, the paper’s owner, believes the move was retaliation for her legal opposition to an internet blackout that the Indian government imposed on the region last year. Al Jazeera has more.
  • Earlier this month, officials in Argentina announced the creation of a public agency that says it will fight hate speech and misinformation online. The international precedent for such state-backed regulators, Laura Zommer and Cristina Tardáguila note for Poynter, isn’t good; in the wrong hands, verification can be “dangerously close to censorship.”
  • And Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, argues that powerful people are realizing that they don’t need to play ball with the paper and its peers. If the Post loses its ability to metaphorically put such people’s heads “on pikes,” they will “stop caring what the well-informed segment of the public thinks. Democracy dies in dumbness.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.