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HHS Secretary Alex Azar with President Trump at the White House on Nov. 20. Photo: Mangel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

A former senior Health and Human Services adviser advocated this summer to let young and middle-aged Americans become infected with COVID-19 in order to develop "herd immunity," according to emails released Wednesday by the House committee overseeing the federal government's coronavirus response.

Why it matters: Without a vaccine, achieving herd immunity — in which widespread outbreaks are prevented because enough people in a community are immune to a disease — would result in widespread fatalities and likely overwhelm health systems.

  • Politico first reported on the documents released by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
  • Paul Alexander was the former adviser to HHS assistant public affairs secretary Michael Caputo, who took a leave of absence after accusing CDC scientists of gathering a "resistance unit" against President Trump.

What they're saying: "My view, we open up fully as described below, protect the vulnerable, make sensible decisions, and allow the nation to develop antibodies," Alexander wrote in a July 4 email to multiple HHS spokespeople, including his former boss Michael Caputo.

  • "Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk .... so we use them to develop herd ... we want them infected.... and recovered...with antibodies," he added.

In a July 24 email to FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo and eight other officials, Alexander wrote: "[I]t may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected if we acutely lock down the elderly and at-risk folk...but use the strong and well in the society to get infected and get to that 25%."

  • "[M]aybe as we wait for a vaccine and therapeutics, we may be able to get 25% antibodies ourselves by natural immunity...natural exposure," Alexander added. "This can't be discounted...we have [to] think outside the box."

In a July 27 email to CDC director Robert Redfield, Alexander said the country “essentially took off the battlefield the most potent weapon we had...younger healthy people, children, teens, young people who we needed to fastly [sic] infect themselves, spread it around, develop immunity, and help stop the spread.”

The big picture: Achieving herd immunity through mass infection of non-vulnerable people — while protecting the vulnerable — isn't possible without offering protections that the U.S. has never attempted.

  • For example, nursing home cases have moved in tandem with the total number of cases, even though we've known for months that nursing homes are as at-risk as it gets.
  • HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other Trump officials have insisted that herd immunity was never the administration's strategy, though the president suggested in September that the virus would disappear when people develop "a herd mentality."

Worth noting: Alexander also frequently attacked scientists like Anthony Fauci, accusing them of muddling public health messaging and trying to "destroy the nation and people's lives just to make the President look bad."

The other side: An HHS spokesperson said in a statement to Politico that Alexander’s demands "absolutely did not" shape the agency's strategy.

  • "Dr. Paul Alexander previously served as a temporary Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and is no longer employed at the Department," the spokesperson said.

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Updated Aug 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Massachusetts to mandate COVID vaccination for long-term care staff — CVS, Walgreens see uptick of people getting COVID vaccines — WHO calls for moratorium on booster shots through September.
  2. Health: Fauci fears a COVID variant worse than Delta could be coming — America's pandemic pessimism returns — Florida counties hold off on adding more testing despite Delta surge.
  3. Politics: Arkansas governor says he regrets banning mask mandatesBiden tells GOP governors who resist COVID rules to "get out of the way" — Florida school district reverses mask mandate after DeSantis' funding threat.
  4. Business: Biden voices support for private sector vaccine requirements — More corporations are requiring workers to get vaccinated.
  5. World: Israel reinstates restrictions as cases surge— Wuhan to test all residents for COVID-19 amid Delta variant concerns.
  6. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.