After the authors of a declaration promoting herd immunity spoke to White House officials last week, the scientific community immediately called into question the declaration as well as the scientists who wrote it.
The Great Barrington Declaration, a statement written by three public health experts from Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford, encourages governments to lift lockdown restrictions on young and healthy people while focusing protection measures on the elderly. This would allow COVID-19 to spread in a population where it is less likely to be deadly, the authors state, encouraging widespread immunity that is not dependent on a vaccine.
Restrictions have caused other harms, including lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings, and deteriorating mental health, they argue.
After gaining some publicity, this strategy was strongly denounced by many in the scientific community. While it supposedly received 8,000 signatures from public health experts and doctors, news outlets later revealed that some of those signatures were fake.
The declaration was sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian, free-market think tank headquartered in western Massachusetts. The Institute is in a network of organizations funded by Charles Koch — a right-wing billionaire known for promoting climate change denial and opposing regulations on business.
While the scientists who wrote the declaration claim they represent both right- and left-wing politics, all have attempted to influence governments to end lockdowns since the start of the pandemic.
Here’s a look at the three scientists behind the Great Barrington Declaration. MedPage Today reached out to them for comment but none responded.
Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD
Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford University, was an early vocal opponent of coronavirus lockdowns beginning in early March.
In a March 24 opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal when statewide lockdowns were beginning, Bhattacharya and a co-author questioned the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that universal quarantines may not be worth the costs to the economy, social life, and population health.
Along with John Ioannidis, MD, DSC, of Stanford, Bhattacharya co-authored the Santa Clara antibody seroprevalence study, a preprint published in April that suggested coronavirus infections (and possibly, immunity) were up to 85 times higher than scientists originally thought. The study, which became a tool in the political debate to reopen the economy, was criticized for lacking sound evidence. It was later revealed by BuzzFeed News that the study received funding from the founder of JetBlue, which the authors hadn’t disclosed.
In early September, President Trump stated that the U.S. case fatality rate for COVID-19 dropped 85% since April, because of the “groundbreaking therapies” pioneered under Operation Warp Speed (though the only authorized treatment supported by the program is convalescent plasma). Bhattacharya was cited as the source of the data showing the fatality rate reduction — which can be attributed to more testing, improved protection measures in nursing homes, and some new treatments, according to PolitiFact.
Bhattacharya is also a former research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford where Scott Atlas, MD, of the White House coronavirus task force, is currently a senior research fellow.
Martin Kulldorff, PhD
Kulldorff is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital who develops epidemiological and statistical models to detect infectious disease outbreaks. The epidemiologist has repeatedly said that restrictions for young and healthy people are unwarranted, as the risk of COVID-19 mortality is a thousand times higher for the elderly than it is for youth.
“While this is a very dangerous disease for the elderly, for children it’s much less dangerous than the annual flu,” Kulldorff said in an August interview with Contagion Live. “And for people in their 20s and 30s, it’s not a dangerous disease at all.”
Kulldorff has criticized public health measures, including widespread testing of asymptomatic patients. In a Wall Street Journal commentary (which he co-wrote with Bhattacharya), Kulldorff stated that “there is little purpose in using tests to check asymptomatic children to see if it is safe for them to come to school,” as more positive tests would only encourage more school closures and deprive children of their education. His commentary was written after CDC guidelines stated some asymptomatic patients may not need to be tested — but those recommendations were later reversed.
“Testing is intended to save lives, not to detect asymptomatic people who are otherwise healthy,” Kulldorff and Bhattacharya wrote. “With the new CDC guidelines, strategic age-targeted viral testing will protect older people from deadly COVID-19 exposure and children and young adults from needless school closures.”
The scientist has defended coronavirus falsehoods spread by White House officials, including those touting natural herd immunity. Kulldorff sought to refute 98 Stanford scientists who criticized Atlas’s recommendations to allow young people to resume normal activities, stating that their letter “ignores collateral damage caused by lockdowns.”
Sunetra Gupta, PhD
Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology in the department of zoology at Oxford University, has spoken out on several occasions about her anti-lockdown stance.
“We can’t just think about those who are vulnerable to the disease,” Gupta told The Guardian in June. “We have to think about those who are vulnerable to lockdown too. The costs of lockdown are too high at this point.”
When Britain’s first lockdown went into effect in late March, Gupta and colleagues published a preprint study that modeled a scenario in which the first coronavirus infections in the U.K. and Italy occurred a month earlier than scientists previously thought — meaning that a significant portion of the population may have been exposed to COVID-19 infection and acquired immunity.
While data on seroprevalence in the U.K. does not support this model, Gupta has still argued that universal lockdowns are a drastic measure.
Asked about the collective shaming of young people living their lives normally, Gupta told Reaction in July that “the only way we can reduce the risk to the vulnerable people in the population is, for those of us who are able to acquire herd immunity, to do that.”
“Maybe the way to counter it now is to say, actually, not only is it a good thing for young people to go out there and become immune, but that it is almost their duty,” she said.