Today we begin with a fundamental shift that’s happening in American science. Over the centuries, scientific debate was usually considered invaluable in order for scientific advancements to take place. But an information war launched by public health officials during the Covid pandemic has made many ask whether that longstanding dynamic is still possible.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: I think we're in a very, very bad state. We're going to need to have a very honest look at the problems in this pandemic, almost like a 9/11 style commission.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya says he never imagined he’d find himself at the center of a firestorm during the Covid pandemic. A professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, he’s a medical doctor with a PhD in economics. The story of how he went from respected mainstream academic to the focus of an organized smear by top public health officials begins about six months after the national Covid lockdown began.
Bhattacharya and two colleagues published a policy statement named for the town where they signed it: Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Bhattacharya (UnHerd video): It’s an informed freedom as opposed to this perception that everyone faces equal risk, which is not true.
Sharyl: What is the Great Barrington Declaration, the idea behind it and what happened with that?
Bhattacharya: The Great Barrington Declaration said, "Let's devote our resources to protecting the older populations and other people with chronic conditions, the predisposed to bad outcomes if they get COVID. And for the rest of the population, let's live as close to normal lives as possible." That's it. That's the strategy. The fact is that there's a thousand-fold difference in the risk of severe disease— oldest people: very high risk of death. 80% of deaths are people over 65 around the world, whereas young people, especially children, are very low risk for severe disease, right? Very low death rates.
Sharyl: You had a lot of scientists sign onto that. Do you know how many?
Bhattacharya: Tens of thousands of scientists and doctors signed on. We have almost 950,000 regular people. This despite Big Tech suppression of it. The idea is not even original. It's the same pandemic plan we follow for decades in respiratory pandemic after respiratory pandemic, as recently as 2009 with the H1N1 flu pandemic. It's essentially the Great Barrington Declaration, except it wasn't called that then.
The three scientists didn’t know it yet, but their public efforts would make them targets of a frantic behind-the-scenes campaign by public health officials at the highest level.
Bhattacharya: So, we wrote this document on October 4th, 2020. Released it. It went viral, beyond my expectations. Four days later, I find out from a FOIA'ed email — Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, wrote an email accusing me, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, one of the world's best epidemiologists, and Martin Kulldorff, one of the world's best epidemiologists and biostatisticians from Harvard — Stanford, Harvard, Oxford — of being “fringe epidemiologists,” and then asking for a “devastating published takedown” of our premises.
The emails were recently revealed through a Freedom of Information or FOIA request. On October 8, 2020, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health or NIH, emailed White House Covid adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads an NIH sub-agency called the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Collins calls Bhattacharya and the other Great Barrington Declaration co-authors “three fringe epidemiologists” whose proposal "seems to be getting a lot of attentioneven a signature from Nobel Prize winner Mike Leavitt at Stanford. There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises. I don't see anything like that online yet - is it underway?” Collins asks Fauci.
The public health leaders were turning to online media to personally discredit the scientists.
Fauci later emailed Collins copies of articles published by Wired and The Nation Magazine, attacking The Great Barrington Declaration and its scientists.
Bhattacharya: It was essentially an organized propaganda campaign, started by the NIH, at least as best I can tell with the FOIA documents I've seen so far, to marginalize me, to call me “fringe,” even though I've been a Stanford professor for 20 years in the medical school.
Sharyl: So were you ever called fringe, to your knowledge, before all of this?
Jay Bhattacharya: No. I mean, not that I'm aware of. I would've thought that if I were in Tony Fauci's position, and you have prominent outside scientists saying, "Look, the strategy you're following is deadly and leading to too many deaths, and is not saving lives, is bad," I would've engaged with those scientists to try to understand what they're talking about. Instead, I never heard from him. And I felt the brunt of the propaganda campaign, where he had friendly reporters come and try to attack me — friendly to him — come and attack me.
We asked Fauci and Collins for interviews about the Great Barrington Declaration and their emails, but they declined.
A spokesman told us Collins, who is no longer head of NIH, “has been very vocal about his opposition of the Great Barrington Declaration stating that [it] is scientifically indefensible and irresponsible.”
Here’s what Fauci said in October 2020 about the idea in The Great Barrington Declaration of protecting the most vulnerable, and keeping schools open and life relatively normal for everyone else.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: (Oct. 2020, ABC News) 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.
In fact, a growing body of scientific data and evidence supports the approach outlined in The Great Barrington Declaration: lockdowns failed at short-circuiting Covid, and the toll in terms of economic losses, physical and mental health, and education have been well-documented.
Recently, Fauci insisted lockdowns saved many lives, but he was surprisingly in sync with Bhattacharya and The Great Barrington Declaration about the harms of the restrictions.
Fauci (March 27, BBC): Particularly in children who were not allowed to go to school, in the psychological and mental health aspects it has on children, in the economic stress that it puts on society in general, on individual families, obviously those are negative consequences that are unintended.
Yet the Great Barrington Declaration scientists who strongly argued the same thing in 2020 found themselves attacked, and subjected to smears and career threats by the scientific establishment they once embraced. Some have had federal grant money— the life-blood for academic researchers — jeopardized or withdrawn by Collins’ and Fauci’s agencies — who hold the purse strings when it comes to billions in federal tax dollars.
Bhattacharya: I mean, I've been funded by the NIH for most of my career. Last 20 years. It helps convince your university, for instance, that you should get tenure. A lot of scientists, looking at this, say, "Okay, well, these are fringe ideas. I'd better stay silent or else my career's threatened." And that's what's happened. They use their power to silence scientists. And that is a conflict of interest.
Bhattacharya says he’s survived because he’s tenured at Stanford, but that his reputation is irreparably damaged in some corners. Now, he’s among a group of scientists and watchdogs pushing for major reforms.
Jay Bhattacharya: The people have been mis-served by public health. And so, the people are going to have to demand that the reforms that happen are driven by people who are not conflicted, who didn't make these mistakes. And I know that there's an impetus to try to do an evaluation, where the people doing the evaluation are those same ones who made the mistake. If that happens, it'll just cement the distrust that the public has in public health. Certainly, it'll cement my distrust.
Sharyl: What is among the most important things you've learned, maybe in the bigger picture as a scientist, about how things work when there's a message that's to be put out?
Bhattacharya: That, in fact, the kinds of scientific discussions that I took for granted for most of my career cannot survive a situation where you have government bodies controversializing perfectly reasonable positions, suppressing debate and suppressing discussion, employing propaganda techniques like Big Tech or the press to attack — personally attack — the lives of scientists who disagree. You cannot have science where the government essentially can control what it wants to have happen. There has to be freedom for science to actually work. And I didn't fully understand that before the pandemic, but now I see it.
Sharyl (On-camera): Among the reforms Bhattacharya says are needed is putting a firewall between public health officials who make policy decisions and the funding that scientists receive so the money cannot be used to suppress scientific discussion or to blackmail researchers into silence.