Sunetra Gupta: social media attacks ‘stifling coronavirus debate’

Oxford epidemiologist and lockdown critic says ‘puritanical’ criticism of idea of herd immunity has chilled legitimate scientific and policy debate

September 16, 2020

A leading epidemiologist has criticised the “nervousness” of scientists to discuss the idea that herd immunity may end the coronavirus epidemic, saying social media attacks on those raising the concept have chilled open scholarly debate.

“We need a sensible debate on this issue,” Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford, told Times Higher Education. She said she had been labelled “unethical” and “dangerous” by fellow academics for suggesting that many more Britons might be resistant to the virus than previously thought as a result of exposure to Covid-19 and other seasonal coronaviruses, and that lockdown measures may therefore have been unnecessary.

Given how coronavirus case rates had not spiked in London, New York and other heavily exposed cities after lockdown restrictions were eased, it was time to ask whether herd immunity had been reached in many locations – possibly at a “much lower threshold” than the 70 per cent level normally required for many diseases, said Professor Gupta.  

However, furious online denunciations of those discussing herd immunity, which often used “religious” and “puritanical” rhetoric, made it difficult to begin a debate on this important issue, she claimed.

“Herd immunity is what happens in most epidemics – it is the impediment to a virus that naturally leads to population-level immunity,” said Professor Gupta. “It is not unethical to talk about it and there is no implication that some people are dispensable – some people may die but we accept [this risk] with any disease in the world,” she added, saying some 20,000 people died of influenza in the UK each year “but we do not introduce lockdowns”.

“Instead, we reach some level of accommodation with a disease – herd immunity is part of that and it should not lead to an implication that we are somehow being unethical.”

Such highly charged criticism of her research – including a preprint paper in March that suggested that infection mortality rates from coronavirus may be “much lower” than the 0.5 per cent initially estimated in many countries – meant her team had struggled to get published in top journals, said Professor Gupta.

“We came up against so much criticism from academics on social media, or who wrote letters to newspapers or journals claiming that our work was not just wrong, but unethical and dangerous,” she explained.

“We did enquire with a journal to see if they were interested in it but didn’t hear anything – it was clear that there was too much nervousness in this whole area for it to be published,” added Professor Gupta, who said other preprints supporting the concept of natural immunity had also failed to be picked up for review.

This “missing debate” within the coronavirus literature also had implications when considering whether students should return to universities this month, said Professor Gupta, given how infections among low-risk groups of younger people could help to accelerate herd immunity, leading to an end to wider coronavirus restrictions.

“Sending young people back to university is a win-win,” claimed Professor Gupta. “They are not at serious risk themselves and by becoming immune [through infection], it lowers the risk for others,” she said.

On the potential threat to older academics, Professor Gupta replied: “I am 55 years old but I am happy to take this risk, which is very low and on par with other risks I face every day.”

Vulnerable groups should, she argued, be “aggressively shielded” and sensible precautions taken, but “it was wrong to deny students a proper university education involving face-to-face contact for a whole year – and possibly several years”.

“We need to get [coronavirus] to an endemic state…by letting young people mix and live their lives, which will help society to build up immunity,” she added. “We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Epidemiologist argues social media attacks ‘stifling coronavirus debate’

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Reader's comments (9)

To quote a Dutch article on Linked in (freely translated), said by an elderly lady, shielding against her will to the doctor who was the first person to have touched her in six months, "there are worse things in life than dying!" Even for those of us who are out and about, the restrictions on (physical, and other) contact are frustrating. We will not tolerate lockdowns of varying degree for ever and the longer they continue, the more psychic stress and mental health problems we will see.
Professor Gupta is saying what many academics think but dare not say even though evidence for lockdown, mask wearing and the restrictions on civil liberty is sorely lacking. Scientists , even with evidence to the contrary, are kept out of any debate, vilified and humiliated. Something is seriously wrong.
Social media has turned out to be a blight on debate and discussion about, well, anything. It's full of individuals who think that if someone else does not agree with what they think completely, that's an excuse to abuse them. Even stranger, if you feel that someone has offended you, apparently it's appropriate to be deliberately hurtful towards them. This means that it is not a suitable forum for holding a discussion or a debate. This is why I no longer participate in social media, as I enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, of finding out what other people think and expressing my own ideas, of sharing thoughts and presenting arguments... and indeed sometimes being persuaded that my orginal view isn't as good as I thought it was! But while I'm open to being persuaded by argument and evidence, shrieking abuse and being deliberately nasty cuts no ice!
Completely agree- there needs to be more debate and challenge of what is really taking place. Why for example were death rates in sweden - where there was no lockdown- no more elevated than other countries? Where is the evidence that masks have any impact? Why is there no debate about why death rates and hospitalisations are so much lower now, eg evidence from Italy over the summer? Why not super isolate the vulnerable for a short period and let the young and healthy circulate normally and let nature take its course.
Sometimes I wonder if the advocates of heard immunity are also some of the lucky ones who do not know anyone who had Covid-19, let alone died from it. I have friends and relatives who had to deal with covid. Luckily no one died. Some of them are healthy individuals with no preexisting conditions and some are children. Yes, children. The ones supposedly "covid-proof", so we can safely reopen schools. Of course, this is andecdotal evidence. However, there is a difference between 'theoretical epidemiology' and the reality we are seeing, with different evolutions of the pandemic in countries with population characteristics that cannot be compared.
* herd. Ops!
I wonder why nobody is mentioning Japan in this context, that's been a success story as far as herd immunity is concerned. Please do think of well managed states outside Europe, once in a while!
In Japan, as well as in South Korea, to give another Asian exemple, when people are told to wear masks, they do it. People usually already have the habit of wearing masks for other reasons, even seasonal flu or a simple cold. They are densely populated countries, but the guidance from their governments have been clear from the start, with adjustments as the pandemic evolved, of course. In the UK, regional lockdowns are creating even greater uncertainty to businesses, schools and so on. People are allowed to "roam free", only to tell them to lockdown again a couple of weeks later. There is now a patchwork of rules we are supposed to follow. This creates general mistrust in guidance, any guidance. People become fed up and more and more will start breaking the rules re. gatherings of more than 6 people, masks in shops etc. Some already are. Then we will keep seeing new spikes, followed by local lockdowns, followed by celebrations of the reopening of pubs (indeed, an essential part of our society)... But hey, in a few years we will have achieved herd immunity. Hurray! Some people, children and otherwise healthy people included, will have died in the process, but oh well... tough luck. We cannot achieve herd immunity without a vaccine that works and a few years of immunisation campaigns. At the moment we don't even have effective treatments, just paliative care.
Inuk providing a perfect example of the hysterical anecdotal based reaction that we hear when Herd immunity is discussed. In these peoples eye’s we should all live in fear, admonishing anyone who dares not to worship the fear of Corona, all whilst our economies crash around our ears. Yes, nasty horrible disease and very sad that people have died but only the financially secure and clinically anxious can afford or desire not to get back to a normal way of life again. The silent, non-hysterical majority recognise that the cumulative death rates caused by lockdown plus those who would have died from C19 anyway are greater than if we had taken no measures at all and carried on as we always used to before hysterical MSM and social Media had the influence to control government decision making.

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