Covid, lockdown and the retreat of scientific debate

13 October 2021

8:55 AM

13 October 2021

8:55 AM

Science is about rational disagreement, the questioning and testing of orthodoxy and the constant search for truth. With something like lockdown – an untested policy that affects millions – rigorous debate and the basics of verification/falsification are more important than ever. Academics backing lockdown (or any major theory) ought to welcome challenges, knowing – as scientists do – that robust challenge is the way to identify error, improve policy and save lives.

But with lockdown, science is in danger of being suppressed by politics. Lockdown moved instantly from untested theory to unchallengeable orthodoxy: where dissenters face personal attack. Understandable on social media perhaps, but it has now crept into the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in a recent article about the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD).

The GBD, which I wrote, together with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford and Dr. Sunetra Gupta at Oxford, argues for focused protection. Rather than a blanket lockdown which inflicts so much harm on society, we wanted better protection of those most at risk – mindful that Covid typically poses only a mild risk to the young. For saying so, we are smeared as ‘the new merchants of doubt’ – as if scepticism and challenge is regarded by the BMJ as something to be condemned.

The BMJ article is full of errors that ought to have never found their way into any publication. Here are some examples:

  1. My colleagues and I are described as ‘critics of public health measures to curb Covid-19’. On the contrary, throughout the pandemic we have strongly advocated better public health measures to curb Covid-19 – specifically protection of high-risk older people, with manyclearly defined’ proposals. The failure to implement such measures, in our view, has led to many unnecessary Covid deaths.
  2. We are described as ‘proponents of herd immunity’ which is akin to accusing someone of being in favour of gravity. Both are scientifically established phenomena. Every Covid strategy leads to herd immunity. The key is to minimise morbidity and mortality. The language, here, is non-scientific: herd immunity is not a creed. It’s how pandemics end.
  3. It says we have ‘expressed opposition to mass vaccination’. Dr. Gupta and I have spent decades on vaccine research and we are all strong advocates for Covid and other vaccines. They are among the greatest inventions in history. To falsely credit the anti-vaccine movement with support from professors at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford is damaging for vaccine confidence. This is unworthy of a medical journal.
  4. The GBD is referred to as a ‘sophisticated science denialism’. Note here how something that challenges an orthodoxy is described as anti-science – a label that presumably could have been applied to any scientific innovator who ever questioned a failed orthodoxy. Collateral public health damage from Covid restrictions are real and enormous on cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, backsliding childhood vaccinations, starvation and mental health, just to name a few. It is not the GBD, but those who downplay lockdown harms who should be equated with those who question the harms of tobacco or climate change.
  5. The GBD was not ‘sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) – and I’m pleased to see that the BMJ has at least retracted this claim. We were there for media interviews, with no sponsorship. How did such a blunder end up in print in the first place? The AIER staff did not even know about the Declaration until the day before it was signed, and the AIER president and board did not know about it until after publication. If we had written the Declaration at say, Starbucks, would the BMJ have claimed that it was sponsored by the coffee shop?
  6. The BMJ article mentions ‘AIER contributor Scott Atlas’, but Dr. Atlas has never been affiliated with nor written for AIER. Neither have we – unless the BMJ also views us as affiliated with hundreds of universities and organisations that we have visited during our careers or that have reprinted some of our articles. Dr. Atlas was not even aware that AIER had reprinted one of his articles until the BMJ linked to it. Several AIER employees have gracefully supported the GBD, just like countless other people around the world, but we have never received any money from the AIER. This basic error again exposes how normal checks did not appear to have been applied by the BMJ.
  7. The BMJ article ends by saying that my colleagues and I are peddling a ‘well-funded sophisticated science denialist campaign based on ideological and corporate interests’. Nobody has paid us money for our work on the GBD, or for advocating focused protection. None of us would have undertaken this project for professional gain: it is far easier to stay silent than put your head above the parapet. As a vaccine developer, Dr. Gupta has connections with a pharmaceutical start-up, but Dr. Bhattacharya and I are among the few drug/vaccine scientists who purposely avoid pharmaceutical company funding to be free from conflicts of interests.

The BMJ attempt to link us to the Koch brothers is an ad hominem attack of the highest order, but failed to mention much closer connections. We all work for universities that have received donations from Koch Foundations, although unrelated to any of our own work. While the AIER has received only a single $68K (£50,000) Koch donation a few years ago, many universities have received multiple, much larger Koch donations, including million dollar gifts to Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Stanford. Since university staff frequently publish in the BMJ, the journal is arguably more closely connected to a ‘network of organisations funded by Charles Koch’ than the AIER.

Many scientists receive research funding from private foundations, for which we as scientists should be grateful. It is hypocritical and discriminatory for the BMJ to single out Dr. Gupta because her lab received limited funds from the Opel Foundation. As one among many examples, Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College were awarded a prize by the Koch-affiliated Mercatus Center’s ‘Emergent Ventures’ program.

During a pandemic, it is the duty of public health scientists to engage with government officials: to use their expertise to confront what right now is perhaps the biggest single problem facing humanity. It is hard to understand why anyone would criticise that.

If we are to be faulted for anything, it is that we failed to convince governments to implement focused protection instead of damaging lockdowns. One place where we had some success was Florida, where the cumulative age-adjusted Covid mortality is lower than the US national average with less collateral damage. If we are wrong, then as scientists we would welcome a scientific discussion on how and where we are wrong.

The BMJ article urges people to use ‘political and legal strategies’ rather than scientific argument to counter our views on the pandemic. It also calls for people to adhere to the ‘scientific consensus’ as represented by a Memorandum published by the Lancet, a document that questions natural immunity after Covid disease, despite a recent Israeli study suggesting it could be stronger than vaccine protection.

What is there to say? Because of political strategies using slander and ad hominem attacks, many physicians and scientists have been reluctant to speak out despite their reservations about pandemic policies. The error-strewn attacks in BMJ demonstrate what awaits academics who do challenge prevailing views.

That such an article was published exemplifies the decay in standards of scientific journals. Open and honest discourse is critical for science and public health. As scientists, we must now tragically acknowledge that 400 years of scientific enlightenment may be coming to an end. It started with Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and René Descartes. It would be tragic if it would end up as one of the many casualties of this pandemic.

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