A Dangerous Plan to Address COVID-19 Started With a Portland Dermatologist

After a right-wing website tweeted an article about it, Twitter locked the site’s account for violating its rules against spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

Boarded-up windows in the Pearl District. (Rocky Burnside)

On Wednesday, right-wing website The Federalist published an article about COVID-19 that was so uninformed, and potentially deadly, that Twitter suspended the online magazine's account.

The author of that dangerous column? A Portland dermatologist.

In the article, Douglas Perednia, a retired internist and dermatologist, argues that intentionally infecting low-risk subjects with the coronavirus could help the country achieve herd immunity and cause the disease to fizzle out.

The article makes reference to "chickenpox parties," an outdated practice in which families deliberately expose their children to others with the disease in order to get it "out of the way in one little local epidemic."

But medical professionals say likening the novel coronavirus to the virus that causes chickenpox is misguided at best and, when put into practice, a potential health hazard.

"Overall, people with COVID-19 infection have a much higher risk of death than ever was true with chickenpox," says Dr. Maxine Dexter, a local physician who practices pulmonary and critical care medicine. "We also don't know how long immunity lasts—there are some reports of patients being reinfected, which needs to be investigated further, and would completely undermine the assumption that having had the disease once means you will never get it again."

Reached for comment, Perednia tells WW that The Federalist made several edits to the piece that he was unaware of until it was published, including references to the disease as "the Wuhan virus" and overemphasizing chickenpox parties. He also insists he never called for people to expose themselves outside of a controlled environment.

The original title, "Controlled Voluntary Infection Could Help Counter COVID-19 and Revive the Economy," was altered to highlight the chickenpox reference in the footnotes of the article, which was not his intent.

"My impression is that The Federalist edited it and felt the title might get more attention than my title did," Perednia says. "But it's the wrong kind of attention. If it created a misleading impression in the minds of people who read the title and not the article, and that shouldn't have been done."

Perednia now regrets that the article ended up in The Federalist. While he shopped it around unsuccessfully to outlets like The New York Times, he ultimately ended up submitting it to the right-wing site, which he says he wasn't really familiar with, after an acquaintance suggested it.

"They published it in such a way that it made it an easy target for sites on the other side of the political spectrum," Perednia says. "I don't think I'd do that again."

Regardless, Perednia still promotes the idea of select groups trying to obtain immunity by getting the disease. He also seems to invent a medical term: "Controlled Voluntary Infection," which would medically screen healthy, younger subjects for a program in which they would be "actively exposed to the mildest form of COVID-19 virus available."

Perednia believes everyone should adhere to the current physical distancing guidelines, but sees CVI as a stopgap measure to try to achieve immunity while work is underway on a vaccination.

Experts decry that idea.

"People who intentionally infect their children are willingly increasing the number of people who will die in the community as a result," Dexter says. "The idea of Controlled Voluntary Infection is irresponsible and dangerous."

After The Federalist tweeted the article, Twitter locked the publication's account for violating its rules about spreading misinformation related to the coronavirus. The account was eventually reinstated and the tweet was deleted, but the article has not been removed from the website.

Perednia told the website Mediaite that he never "suggested or implied that anyone just go and hold their own 'coronavirus party.'" But some have already gone forward with the concept: Earlier this week, an adult in Kentucky was infected after attending one such party, causing the state's governor to chastise the group's actions.

"We still do not understand how long someone is infectious, and we know it spreads very easily," Dexter says, "making it extremely difficult to control the infection from spreading."

Update, 2:30 pm March 27: This post has been updated to include responses to WW's inquiries from Douglas Perednia.

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