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U.S. Will Reach Herd Immunity By April, Johns Hopkins Doctor Says; Other Experts Refute Claim

"[S]cientists shouldn’t try to manipulate the public by hiding the truth."
coronavirus,3d render
dowell via Getty Images

Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the renowned Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, on Friday sent shockwaves through the medical community in a Wall Street Journal piece headlined, “We’ll Have Herd Immunity by April.” Members of the scientific community have since pushed back on some of Makary’s key claims.

“There is reason to think the country is racing toward an extremely low level of infection,” Makary writes. “As more people have been infected, most of whom have mild or no symptoms, there are fewer Americans left to be infected. At the current trajectory, I expect Covid will be mostly gone by April, allowing Americans to resume normal life.”

The spread of COVID-19 spiked after family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they’ve been plunging ever since.

Why? “In large part because natural immunity from prior infection is far more common than can be measured by testing. Testing has been capturing only from 10% to 25% of infections, depending on when during the pandemic someone got the virus. Applying a time-weighted case capture average of 1 in 6.5 to the cumulative 28 million confirmed cases would mean about 55% of Americans have natural immunity,” he writes.

“Now add people getting vaccinated. As of this week, 15% of Americans have received the vaccine, and the figure is rising fast. Former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb estimates 250 million doses will have been delivered to some 150 million people by the end of March.”

Makary says antibody studies are likely underestimating natural immunity, saying survivors of the 1918 Spanish flu “were found in 2008 — 90 years later — to have memory cells still able to produce neutralizing antibodies.”

“In my own conversations with medical experts, I have noticed that they too often dismiss natural immunity, arguing that we don’t have data. The data certainly doesn’t fit the classic randomized-controlled-trial model of the old-guard medical establishment. There’s no control group. But the observational data is compelling,” he writes.

“I have argued for months that we could save more American lives if those with prior Covid-19 infection forgo vaccines until all vulnerable seniors get their first dose. Several studies demonstrate that natural immunity should protect those who had Covid-19 until more vaccines are available. Half my friends in the medical community told me: Good idea. The other half said there isn’t enough data on natural immunity, despite the fact that reinfections have occurred in less than 1% of people—and when they do occur, the cases are mild,” Markary writes.

The director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Wallensky, says the U.S. is not near herd immunity.

“[W]e’re not at the place where we believe that the current level of vaccination is what is driving down the current level of disease,” Wallensky said. “We believe that much of the surge of disease happened related to the holidays, related to travel. And so we believe that now we’re coming down from that. So I would articulate really loudly that if you’re relying on our current level of vaccination rather than the other mitigation efforts to get us to remain low, that we shouldn’t rest in that comfort.”

But Markary says many scientists are reluctant to publicly acknowledge his conclusions

“Some medical experts privately agreed with my prediction that there may be very little Covid-19 by April but suggested that I not talk publicly about herd immunity because people might become complacent and fail to take precautions or might decline the vaccine. But scientists shouldn’t try to manipulate the public by hiding the truth. As we encourage everyone to get a vaccine, we also need to reopen schools and society to limit the damage of closures and prolonged isolation. Contingency planning for an open economy by April can deliver hope to those in despair and to those who have made large personal sacrifices,” he writes.

Makary’s op-ed has generated pushback from some members of the scientific community, as summarized by Health Feedback. The assumption that “55% of Americans have natural immunity” to COVID-19 through prior infection was refuted by some experts in the field, including University of California Santa Cruz disease ecology professor Marm Kilpatrick, who “found that the article’s figures for the number of COVID-19 infections detected by testing, as well as the infection fatality rate — which measures the proportion of infected people who die from the disease — were unsubstantiated.” Another potential issue with the piece, according to Kilpatrick, is that it underestimated the infection fatality rate of COVID-19. Citing a November 2020 study, Kilpatrick estimates that 25 percent of the U.S. population has been infected, rather than two-thirds, as claimed by Makary. (Read the full response here.)

This article has been updated to include pushback on Makary’s claims from members of the scientific community. 

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