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There are a number of news sources quoting Nancy Pelosi referring to herd immunity as "quackery":

“It becomes clear to us now that they believed in herd immunity, quackery, springing right from the Oval Office. And not denied sufficiently by some of the CDC and the rest.” --Washington Times

I also heard an audio clip of the same on a talk radio program which sounded to me like Nancy Poland as they claimed.

I'm unable to find any reports of this in more reputable news sources to get a balanced context for the statement. I am also unable to find a source for or copy of the audio bite.

An accepted answer will address the following:

  1. Did Nancy Pelosi actually say this?
  2. If so has "herd immunity" been proven to be scientifically unsound (i.e. quackery)?
  3. If it cannot be proven she said this can anyone find the original source of this quote?
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    Why is this claim difficult to believe? If someone follows the news from the WH. And knows N. Pelosi and her style of rhetoric, it's not implausible in the slightest. – Mari-Lou A Dec 23 '20 at 7:05
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    A reminder to people that "herd immunity" is a term that in 2020 acquired a second meaning, and to be careful to keep the two meanings separate in your answers. Laurel's answer expands on this. – Oddthinking Dec 23 '20 at 8:23
  • Can downvoters please comment as to their problem with the q so it can be addressed? As it is it feels like people downvote many questions on this stack because they make them feel uncomfortable which is the furthest from skeptical as one can be. – psaxton Dec 23 '20 at 14:50
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    Downvoted because it's pretty easy to find that she said it, and pretty clear that she is referring to the kind of fake "herd immunity" that the Whitehouse and other science deniers have been promoting. – DJClayworth Dec 23 '20 at 15:17
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    @DJClayworth Thank you for providing a reason. I actually had a hard time finding any reporting about it outside of right-wing media and so did not have the context that has since been provided in the answers. – psaxton Dec 23 '20 at 17:20
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Yes, Nancy Pelosi said this, and C-SPAN has the video: Speaker Pelosi on Coronavirus Economic Aid Package. You can navigate to the correct part by clicking on the text in the automatically-generated transcript (though note it was not edited and has mistakes like "crockery" when she really said "quackery").

Pelosi already received the COVID-19 vaccine and in her speech she even calls it "a vaccine that springs from science". That leads me to believe that she was not referring to vaccines or the herd immunity that they bring.

A Yahoo.com article suggests that she is referring to the (non-vaccine/"natural") herd immunity idea supported by people such as Paul Alexander, as reported by POLITICO:

“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD," then-science adviser Paul Alexander wrote on July 4 to his boss, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo, and six other senior officials.

"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…" Alexander added.

"[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" in order to get "natural immunity…natural exposure," Alexander wrote on July 24 to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo and eight other senior officials.

There are several reasons why this may be what she meant by "herd immunity, quackery, springing right from the Oval Office":

  • People have been using the term "herd immunity" for it (despite the confusion it creates)
  • Immediately before the "quackery" comment she states that "the administration simply did not believe in testing, tracing, treatment, wearing masks, sanitation, separation and the rest". This is a more general statement, but the idea espoused by Alexander is, by its nature, contrary to some of the preventative measures that she listed.
  • The idea has been criticized for being neither scientifically supported nor ethical. As reported by Nature, it's believed that it would cause a large number of people to have serious health consequences or die. And with as little information as we have on the virus, it's not clear whether immunity will even be achieved in those who are infected or if COVID-19 will be similar to seasonal cold coronaviruses which people only develop immunity to for a year.
  • Paul Alexander was working until December 2020 in the Department of Health and Human Services and according to POLITICO, "Officials told POLITICO that they believed that when Alexander made recommendations, he had the backing of the White House" (though other officials would deny that this "herd immunity" was being considered as a strategy by the White House).
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  • Honestly that explanation as she meant to ref the Politico piece probably comes from the National Review and it's looking like a dodge / diversion / minimization, if you read the NR article. Because a lot more people are likely to remember Scott Atlas' recent spars with Fauci on the matter. – Fizz Dec 23 '20 at 13:39
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The transcription in the question is an accurate representation of her speech, which is available on the C-SPAN vido attached to this tweet

The pause in her speech between "herd immunity" and "quackery" could be interpreted as apposition or it could be enumeration - that is, referring to something else, e.g. the promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment (also done in the Oval Office), not necessarily that she's saying herd immunity is quackery. (The FDA eventually withdrew authorization for HCQ as a treatment for COVID-19.)

For more context, right before that sentence she says

We couldn't pass legislation until now because the Administration simply did not believe in testing, tracing, treatment, wearing masks, sanitation, separation and the rest – scientific approach. It becomes clear to us, now, that they believed in herd immunity, quackery, springing right from the Oval Office, and not denied sufficiently by some of the CDC and the rest. It becomes clear to us, now, that they believed in herd immunity, quackery, springing right from the Oval Office, and not denied sufficiently by some of the CDC and the rest.

So, now, we have a vaccine and that gives us hope. A vaccine that is – springs from science.

(And if you also want to pick apart her previous sentence: "Pelosi falsely claims Trump doesn't believe in treatment (or sanitation)" could also be headline on a certain part of the press.)


Now for her slamming herd immunity... There are (ethical) reasons to disapprove of achieving herd immunity without vaccines for a disease like COVID-19. I'm not entirely sure how explicit Trump was about claiming he wanted this (i.e. herd immunity without a vaccine), but Pelosi is clearly attributing the latter approach to him. Nature only noted this briefly:

US President Donald Trump spoke positively about it in September, using the malapropism “herd mentality”.

Some Trump appointees and advisers were indeed more explicit in promoting herd immunity by natural infection: Paul Alexander or even Scott Atlas. The latter in particular made some claims that have been attacked as pseudoscientific, by claiming that only a relative small fraction of people need to become immune in order for herd immunity to happen:

Scott Atlas, a radiologist who has clashed with other members of the coronavirus task force over his controversial views, reportedly turned down a proposed increase in coronavirus testing by a New York University economist in September by referencing a theory that only 25% or 20% of people need the infection for the rest of the population to be protected, according to the New York Times.

What they're saying: "First of all, that 20% number is the most amazing combination of pixie dust and pseudoscience I've ever seen," Osterholm said in response to Atlas' alleged comments. "It is 50%–70% at minimum."

I guess Pelosi speaking of the "Oval Office" covers them too albeit not 100% accurately. The White House press secretary has denied that Trump really meant try to achieve herd immunity without vaccines:

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters last month that "herd immunity has never been a strategy" for the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus, after the president claimed that the coronavirus would disappear when people develop "a herd mentality."

... and so has

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday that herd immunity is not the Trump administration's policy to deal with the pandemic, adding, "It's a desire through vaccination to get to herd immunity, but it may be an outcome of all of those steps, but the desire is to reduce cases."

Given these fumbles (to put it charitably) from the administration, I'm pretty sure Pelosi was attacking the low-hanging fruit, i.e. that the Trump administration wanted herd immunity without vaccines.

But the Democratic-leaning press didn't really believe these rebuttals from the administration, e.g. ABC wrote in mid-October, recounting the Atlas-Fauci duels in the press:

While he has largely avoided using the phrase "herd immunity" to describe the policies he has furthered, the president's views reflect those of a small subset of scientists with a powerful ally in the White House, Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious diseases who has supplanted Fauci and other top federal public health officials as one of Trump's top medical advisers.

The scientists [that Trump trusted] argue that the United States should seek to achieve "herd immunity" to COVID-19 by allowing the natural spread of the virus through the population, while keeping only "vulnerable" groups -- like the elderly -- protected. Eventually, they say, enough people will get sick and recover -- and potentially become immune to reinfection, at least for some period of time -- that the rate of spread will diminish. [...]

"This idea that we [only] have the power to protect the vulnerable is total nonsense, because history has shown that that's not the case," Fauci said Thursday in an interview with ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America." "And if you talk to anybody who has any experience in epidemiology and infectious diseases, they will tell you that that is risky and you'll wind up with many more infections of vulnerable people, which will lead to hospitalizations and deaths.

"So I think that we just got to look that square in the eye and say it's nonsense," Fauci said.

The Trump administration has not treated it as nonsense, though.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar met last week with Atlas and several researchers who have endorsed the ideas behind a "herd immunity" approach without labeling it as such. Atlas himself is a paid adviser to the president.

In addition to pushing for an end to coronavirus-related restrictions and insisting the country fully "open up," Trump also has repeatedly emphasized -- often with misleading statistics -- that the virus only impacts the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions. His focus on those groups jibes with "herd immunity" adherents who minimize the risk to others. [...]

The White House on Monday convened a conference call for reporters in part to draw attention to the Great Barrington Declaration, an online petition that argues in favor of achieving natural herd immunity while also using "focused protection" to safeguard the most vulnerable. The authors of the open letter boasted thousands of signatories, but Sky News found that among them were "homeopaths, therapists and fake names" like "Dr. Johnny Bananas" and "Dr. Person Fakename." The Infectious Disease Society of America on Wednesday called the petition's ideas "inappropriate, irresponsible and ill-informed." [...]

In a statement provided by the White House, Atlas said "we emphatically deny that the White House, the president, the administration, or anyone advising the president has pursued or advocated for any strategy of achieving herd immunity by letting the coronavirus infection spread through the community." He said the Great Barrington Declaration authors "emphasized focused protection of the vulnerable and safely ending the shutdown of schools and society."

"Those specific policies are aligned with the president, who has repeatedly stated and pursued a strategy focused on saving lives by the following: aggressively protecting the vulnerable, preventing hospital overcrowding, and safely opening schools and society," Atlas said.

But John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the Great Barrington Declaration did, in fact, back the idea of letting the virus rip through the community -- as long as the vulnerable were protected. "It's the same thing," Brownstein, an ABC News contributor, said. "I don't see the distinction." [...] "We know that every single person is a bridge to a high-risk person," he said. "It's just not practical to think you could put people who are high risk separate from the population."

So, even when not endorsing "herd immunity" explicitly, the administration, (especially since the side-lining of Fauci in favor Atlas) has been accused over and over of pursuing that "herd immunity" (by exposure) while not openly admitting it. That should put Pelosi's "herd immunity" jab in (more) context.

As far as interpreting the Pelosi quote, note that even mainstream-ish sources that lean Republican have not suggested she's speaking of "herd immunity" as a general epidemiological concept there, but rather referring to Trump's approach e.g. the National Review:

I’m relatively certain that not one person, much less “people,” in Congress has said: Hey, “I’m faith-oriented so I don’t believe in science.” [...]

But the topper is hearing Pelosi jump from asserting that Republicans have done nothing but intentionally spread the virus to reach “herd immunity” to saying, “now we have a vaccine,” as if the White House hadn’t implemented Operation Warp Speed with the intention of speeding up discovery, production, and distribution.

Granted, government gets too much credit for the COVID vaccine accomplishment. [...]

So I don't know who might have been confused and given it a different (broader) interpretation to what she said, as you suggested in your #2. (Wash Times, which you've used as your source for this q, had no commentary on that angle, only on the faith-based issue, which NR also seized upon.)

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  • @Mari-LouA: I wanted to say something to the effect that (in their rebuttals) the administration also used "herd immunity" as a shorthand for the approach that it was being accused of promoting, but I think that's evident from the quotes. – Fizz Dec 23 '20 at 13:09
  • I think it's stretching too far to say that the Trump administration was deliberately seeking herd immunity without vaccinations. The President had always pushed hard for a vaccine approval, we could say that without his sense of urgency (be it because it was an election year, be it he wanted to bask in the glory etc.) there would likely have been no vaccine until spring. – Mari-Lou A Dec 23 '20 at 13:16
  • @Mari-LouA: well, Pelosi is clearly piling up all the accusations of unscientific approach[es] against Trump she can muster in that speech. That's the whole point of it. Whether she's exaggerating or not with her charges against Trump... is another matter. – Fizz Dec 23 '20 at 13:33
  • But it's you who claims that N.Pelosi is attacking the Executive branch of seeking unprotected herd immunity. Did she actually say that? Was it fully supported by POTUS? If that's your opinion, and that is how I interpreted it, then it is biased. To be clear, I do like the answer but I cannot upvote with that (now) ambiguous conclusion. – Mari-Lou A Dec 23 '20 at 13:42
  • +1 very interesting read with a less "sensational" conclusion. Thanks! – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '20 at 5:04

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