Analyzing natural herd immunity media discourse in the United Kingdom and the United States

Abstract

Natural herd immunity, where community-acquired infections in low-risk populations are used to protect high risk populations from infection–has seen high profile support in some quarters, including through the Great Barrington Declaration. However, this approach has been widely criticized as ineffective and misinformed. In this study, we examine media discourse around natural herd immunity in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) to better understand how this approach was promoted. Country-specific news media publications between March 11, 2020 and January 31, 2021 were searched for references to herd immunity. News articles focused on herd immunity and including a stakeholder quote about herd immunity were collected, resulting in 400 UK and 144 US articles. Stakeholder comments were then coded by name, organization, organization type, and concept agreement or disagreement. Government figures and a small but vocal coalition of academics played a central role in promoting natural herd immunity in the news media whereas critics were largely drawn from academia and public health. These groups clashed on whether: natural herd immunity is an appropriate and effective pandemic response; the consequences of a lockdown are worse than those of promoting herd immunity; high-risk populations could be adequately protected; and if healthcare resources would be adequate under a herd immunity strategy. False balance in news media coverage of natural herd immunity as a pandemic response legitimized this approach and potentially undermined more widely accepted mitigation approaches. The ability to protect high risk populations while building herd immunity was a central but poorly supported pillar of this approach. The presentation of herd immunity in news media underscores the need for greater appreciation of potential harm of media representations that contain false balance.

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