Almost 5,000 scientists, researchers & healthcare professionals have now signed the John Snow Memorandum – which is not a note to the well-known presenter of Channel 4 News, but a challenge to libertarian and right ring extremist attempts to undermine efforts to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.

John Snow was a 19th century pioneer of what later became the public health movement: he famously tracked back from infected patients dying of cholera in South East London, to trace its source in the polluted water being drunk from a single pump in Broad Street. The removal of the pump handle brought an end to the outbreak.

The John Snow memorandum is calling for similarly bold and scientifically-based action by government in Britain and internationally to clamp down on the transmission of the coronavirus and simultaneously step up the performance of the lamentable centralised test and trace system.

The trigger for this concerted effort by concerned scientists to uphold the principles of public health medicine was the publication in the US in early October of the so-called “Great Barrington Declaration,” as part of a fresh and more vigorous international offensive by right wing media pundits and politicians arguing against any lockdown measures to contain the virus, and for the virus to be allowed to infect a large percentage of the population, reviving the discredited notion of “herd immunity”.

The Declaration was backed and given a slick media launch and champagne reception in New England by the American Institute for Economic Research, a lavishly-funded neoliberal think tank, not dissimilar to the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK.

A Guardian rebuttal of this “bad science” has noted that the AIER “has a history of funding controversial research – such as a study extolling the benefits of sweatshops supplying multinationals for those employed in them – while its statements on climate change largely downplay the threats of the environmental crisis.”

Now the AIER website, in another article headed ‘Government Policies Have Worsened the Coronavirus Crisis’ is just as eager to downplay the significance of 1.1 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide: “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of the middle of October 2020, there were over 39 million global confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with almost 1.1 million deaths attributed to it. It is worth keeping in mind that the world population is estimated at over 7.8 billion people. This means that, as of now, .005 of the world’s population have caught the virus and .0000141 percent of all the people on the planet have died due to the virus.”

Its opponents point out that the views set out in the Great Barrington Declaration are not based on evidence, and the scientists feted at the launch of the document have not had these views published in any peer-reviewed scientific journals. The Declaration claimed to have been signed by 27,000 people, although few of these had any relevant scientific or health credentials, and many of these signatures have been shown to be bogus after a campaign identified a weakness in vetting added names.

The notion of relying on some eventual possible development of “herd immunity” to the virus rather than seeking to contain it until a proven vaccine can protect the population, which could mean 2 million or more deaths from Covid in the US to reach even a 65% threshhold, has been rejected as “unethical” by the head of the World Health Organisation Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He said:

“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it. Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. …

“Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It’s not an option.”

In Britain, the Great Barrington Declaration has also been explicitly rejected by the President of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Professor Sir Robert Lechler:

“We cannot lock entire sectors of society away because others want to live their lives ‘as normal’. Neither should we expect younger or healthier people in the population to take a hit for herd immunity, especially when there is so much we are still to discover about the long term effects of COVID-19. We should not be making plans or decisions on how to control its spread behind closed doors in wood-panelled rooms. We must engage with people in the communities most affected to make sure that no decision about them is taken without their input.”

The John Snow Memorandum, also published by the Lancet, describes the herd immunity approach as “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by medical evidence,” and warns that:

“Such a strategy would not end the COVID-19 pandemic but result in recurrent epidemics, as was the case with numerous infectious diseases before the advent of vaccination. It would also place an unacceptable burden on the economy and healthcare workers, many of whom have died from COVID-19 or experienced trauma as a result of having to practise disaster medicine.”

Instead the Memorandum points out that alternative models have been proven to work:

“Japan, Vietnam, and New Zealand, to name a few countries, have shown that robust public health responses can control transmission, allowing life to return to near-normal, and there are many such success stories. The evidence is very clear: controlling community spread of COVID-19 is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months.”


* In Trump’s USA a vivid example demonstrates the value of preventive measures against the virus. The lifting of stay at home regulations in Republican-led Arizona in mid May led to a rapid 151% increase in Covid-19 cases two weeks later: while the local imposition of requirements to wear masks from mid June, accompanied by closure of bars, gyms, theatres and other centres brought an equally rapid 75% reduction in new cases in the following three weeks, even though there is still no state-wide mandate to wear masks.

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