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Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: The Deadly Consequences of Censorship and the Need for COVID Commissions

I sit down with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of health policy at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and one of the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration that argued for focused protection of the vulnerable—instead of large-scale lockdowns.

“Many people that are dead today would be alive, had we been allowed to make that argument,” Bhattacharya says.

We discuss how Big Tech, his university, and the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy worked to silence him and other scientists.

Last December, he was invited by Elon Musk to visit Twitter headquarters and see how he was censored. “I was actually placed on the blacklist the very day I joined Twitter,” he says.

After years of destructive pandemic policies, what is the path forward? How do we prevent the same policies from being adopted the next time there’s a respiratory virus pandemic?


Jan Jekielek: 

Jay Bhattacharya, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya:

Thank you, Jan. It’s so good to be with you.

Mr. Jekielek:

Jay, it’s been a while since we’ve spoken on camera. And since then, all sorts of evidence has come to light about work you did around the Great Barrington Declaration trying to talk about focused protection and gradients and harms across age. There were all sorts of elements of society, Big Tech, government, your own institution, Stanford, all working to suppress some incredibly important information.

And of course, there is the Missouri versus Biden piece which revealed all the information. What’s your reaction at this point having seen all of this?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

It just makes me incredibly sad, Jan, because it’s one thing for me to be censored. If it was just a story about me, that would be one thing. The problem is that me and many of my colleagues were trying to make an argument that the public health response we were following was incredibly misguided. It was going to lead to the harm of countless children and the starvation of millions of people around the world because of the economic harm from the lockdowns.

We were arguing that the diversion of attention from other vital medical priorities was quite shortsighted, and that there was an alternate strategy, focused protection, that could also have better protected older people from the disease. If we had been allowed to make that argument clearly, if we had not been suppressed by the government, by the university that I work at, or news organizations that basically put out propaganda, we would have won that argument, Jan. We had better science. We had the better argument regarding the balance of harms.

We had the better understanding of who was actually at risk of COVID. We would have won that argument and the world would have been better off. Many people that are dead would be alive today had we been allowed to make that argument. That’s why to me, it’s so important to tell this story about the suppression of science by the government, and the failure of academic institutions like my home university, Stanford, to stand up for academic freedom when it counted most.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s start with Stanford. You have been tenured at Stanford for 15 years. You’re one of the premier epidemiologists in the world, and many people would agree with me. So, what happened at Stanford?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Almost from the beginning of COVID, I faced tremendous backlash within my own home institution for speaking up. I wrote an op-ed in March of 2020 in the Wall Street Journal, the first op-ed I had ever written in my life. It said that we don’t yet know how deadly COVID is. I just went through some evidence from the Diamond Princess data and said, “Look, the disease might be much more widespread than we initially believed.”

And it called for a study. The conclusion of the piece was. “Let’s do a study.” We had already locked down the world. It wasn’t like we could go back in time. It just said, “What is the empirical basis for the policies that we are following? We don’t even yet know how deadly the disease is.”

That almost immediately led to my getting death threats. I started getting messages from friends. One of them eventually de-friended me on Facebook. It was petty little things. But the thing that was funny on campus was that it didn’t lead to a broader discussion. Even though I had been at Stanford for 36 years, 20 as a professor, and 15 tenured, I felt like I was on the outside immediately. I had done something where I had breached some norm.

Mr. Jekielek:

The term canceled comes to mind, although not to the fullest.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes. What happened was that I wrote the Great Barrington Declaration. I work in a medical school. I do health policy and infectious disease epidemiology for a living. We just put forward in the Great Barrington Declaration, in October 2020, a major proposal for an alternate strategy to the central policy problem facing the entire world.

It generated an incredible amount of attention, both positive and negative, and it certainly needed to be platformed at Stanford. What I mean by platformed is that one of the main things about the life of a university is that professors give talks about their ideas. It sounds so mundane and boring and most professors are saying. “Who cares about most of my talks?”

But that is actually quite important, Jan. It tells the world, “Look, these ideas are things that are worth discussing, that are worth paying attention to, that are worth respecting even if you disagree with them, even if they turn out to be wrong.” Normally, what would have happened when a professor at a major university makes a major proposal like that is that there would have been invitations within the home institution of the university for debate and discussion.

Instead, what happened was essentially omerta, silence. Nothing. Again, I was still getting death threats from various random sources. On campus, I started hearing the mutterings of people wanting to figure out how to deal with the Jay problem. The summer before, in 2020, there had already been an attack on my colleague, Scott Atlas, who was an advisor to President Trump. A hundred of my colleagues had signed a letter, which I believe was a deeply irresponsible thing to do, attacking him for things he didn’t do.

The letter actually said that hand-washing was important, somehow implying that he didn’t believe in hand-washing. Scott was trying to argue for focused protection of vulnerable people. He was trying to argue for opening schools. He was following the scientific evidence that actually supported all this, and that’s what he was advising President Trump. These one hundred people that signed the letter didn’t understand the evidence as well as Scott did. These were colleagues of mine, people I’ve written papers with, and people I respected.

I called one of them and asked him why he signed the letter. He said he hadn’t taken a very close look at it. There was tremendous social pressure to sign, and even junior people who didn’t have tenure were scared that if they didn’t sign, what would happen to their tenure? That was the atmosphere at Stanford when the Great Barrington Declaration came out. I couldn’t get any traction on trying to get my views aired on campus.

At one point, the former president of the university, John Hennessy, called me and asked me if I’d be willing to do a debate. This was in December of 2020. I was absolutely thrilled. I thought, “Okay, finally we have someone who’s well respected in the Stanford community trying to organize something. I don’t even know if he agreed with the Great Barrington Declaration. It didn’t matter, right? What mattered was that there was going to be some discussion.

He couldn’t get anybody on the other side to sign on. In my home department, the department chair essentially sent the proposal for a debate or a discussion off to a committee that he must have known was going to fail. There was no platforming. There was no time when Stanford said, “Okay, we’re going to host a discussion about this.”

I just want to emphasize why that was important. It’s not because of me personally, although personally I did feel hurt. It was important, because if Stanford had done that, it would have been a major institution telling the world, “Look, this is a debate that’s worth having.”

We were already having legitimate people with legitimate credentials that didn’t agree with the lockdown consensus. There wasn’t a consensus, Jan. There was never a consensus. That was an illusion created by Tony Fauci and a small number of incredibly powerful people.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s go to the second bit of evidence. Let’s try to tie this all together. What came out in some of the discovery in Missouri versus Biden was an email thread that talked about the devastating takedown of some fringe epidemiologists. What was your reaction when you learned of this?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Four days after we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, and I learned this months and months later, Francis Collins, the head of the National Institute of Health, wrote an email to Tony Fauci calling me, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff, the three primary authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, fringe epidemiologists. I actually just laughed when I heard this because it’s just funny.

Mr. Jekielek:

I’ll jump in. Martin Kulldorff and Sunetra Gupta, how would you rank their international stature in epidemiology? You don’t have to talk about yourself.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I’m not fit to be in their company. Martin Kulldorff is probably the best biostatistician working in vaccine safety today. He designed the statistical infrastructure that the FDA and the CDC uses to track vaccine safety. I had used his methods before the pandemic, even before I met him or knew about him.

Sunetra Gupta, she is essentially the professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, an incredibly brilliant mathematician and epidemiologist. Just before the pandemic, she was working on developing a universal flu vaccine, a vaccine that you don’t have to update every year. She is an incredibly impactful scholar who’s had a career at the center of epidemiology.

Mr. Jekielek:

I just want to establish the fact that none of you are actually fringe.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I have a business card somewhere that says fringe epidemiology. A friend of mine sent it to me afterwards. Okay, you’re serious, because you’re asking me this question seriously. It was a deeply irresponsible thing for Francis Collins to do. It was an abuse of his power. He’s the head of the National Institute of Health. He sits on top of $45 billion of federal funding.

For instance, Stanford gets a half a billion dollars a year from the NIH. Not only does he control the money, he also controls the social status of scientists. If you don’t get NIH grants as a biomedical researcher, it puts you down the social hierarchy within the social structure of academic medicine. I would not have gotten tenure at Stanford if I had not won NIH grants.

To say that these three people are fringe, why would he do that? It’s because he didn’t want to cope with our ideas. He didn’t actually want to address the substance of our ideas. He just wanted to dismiss us, and socially, make us outsiders. He wanted to excommunicate us from the scientific community.

What is the message that top universities get when they hear this? They don’t want their social status and their brand hurt by association with fringe epidemiologists or fringe figures. They don’t want the possibility that maybe the funding sources that the NIH provides will get threatened, or that the social status conferred by the NIH to these institutions will get threatened. They brag about how much NIH funding they get.

So, you have a federal government figure abusing his power. Why? Because he couldn’t stand the idea that there were prominent scientists that disagreed with him about pandemic policy. That’s why he called for a devastating takedown of our premises. Initially, the best they could do was tendentious articles in Wired magazine. The substantive counterattack didn’t exist.

When there finally was a substantial counterattack to the Great Barrington Declaration, it came in the form of pieces in prominent scientific journals, but with ridiculous scientific arguments like, “We don’t know if there’s any immunity after infection.” There was a memorandum called the John Snow Memorandum signed by very prominent people, including the current CDC director, who signed her name in November of 2020.

Mr. Jekielek:

Just very briefly, why is that? Why was the John Snow Memorandum problematic?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

It misread the science. For instance, it said that you can’t know for certain that there is immunity after protecting it. It acknowledged that there were some lockdown harms, but downplayed them. It pretended as if they were inevitable, as if the lockdowns were the only inevitable choice to make. All of the harms that came from them were just downstream from this inevitable decision, as opposed to a thing that we decided to do.

It dismissed the possibility of focused protection, essentially sending a signal to the public health community, “Don’t even try. The lockdowns will protect old people. That should be enough.” But the result of that was essentially a corruption of the scientific process, a corruption of major institutions, governments, universities, and top scientific journals in service of a policy that almost everyone now agrees was entirely ineffective.

Even by the standards of COVID deaths alone, how many millions have died? Did the policy work? It essentially ignored the possibility there could have been alternate policy, which there was.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s jump to something a little more recent that you have realized from one of the earliest drops of the Twitter files, that you had been identified as someone to be shadow-banned, and that there was this public-private collaboration to make that happen. What was your reaction?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I joined Twitter in August of 2021. I only joined for one purpose and I figured I needed to make a very public case for the ideas in the Great Barrington Declaration for sane public health. Just writing scientific papers alone wasn’t moving people within the scientific community. It was also clear to me that it was the public that had been most harmed by these lockdown policies—our kids out of school, poor people decimated by COVID, and the difficulty of working class people to make a living and feed their family.

I wanted to tell the public that there was this alternate policy. The purpose of joining Twitter was to reach people that hadn’t heard my message, and perhaps disagreed with me. I could put the evidence that I had in front of them, and put the arguments they had in front of them.

With Twitter, you have your followers, you can send your message, and generally the followers will see it. Not always, but generally. Sometimes though, the posts go viral. They trend in the language of Twitter, so that the broader Twitter community, the millions and millions of people that read Twitter also see those messages from time to time. Not every message, but from time to time.

When Bari Weiss wrote that piece about the Twitter files and she put me at the top of it, she revealed that I had been placed on a trends blacklist. I love that term, Jan. It reminds me of the McCarthy era back in the 1950s. Actually, that’s what this era feels like. It’s like a strange suppression of dissidents by the government that is so sure that it’s right, that it feels okay to do this. The trends blacklist made sure that whenever I did a Tweet, the broader Twitter audience wouldn’t see it.

I felt like I was reaching an audience, because I had 100,000 followers, but I didn’t know that I had no chance of actually accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish by going on Twitter, which is to tell the broader public that there was something deeply wrong with the COVID policy.

I got invited to visit with Elon Musk as a result of these revelations in the Twitter files. What I found out during my visit there at Twitter headquarters is that I was actually placed on the blacklist the very day I joined Twitter. Why did that happen? It’s not Twitter 1.0 on its own that decided this.

That came about because government actors were involved at the highest levels of federal bureaucracy telling social media companies what ideas to censor and who to censor. Maybe the first or second post I did on Twitter was the Great Barrington Declaration. It is still my pinned tweet. You can go see it. And that is what led to the blacklisting.

Mr. Jekielek:

What do you make of this type of collaboration between the highest levels of government and Big Tech? Because we’ve seen from Missouri versus Biden that it wasn’t just Twitter doing this type of activity.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

There needs to be a bright wall of separation because there’s a power imbalance. You can read the emails from Missouri versus Biden; the deposition testimony, the FOIAs, and all the discovery emails, and it looks like there’s this collaborative buddy-buddy relationship. The government says, “These are the people to censor and these are ideas to censor.” And Twitter says, or the social media companies say, “Oh great, we want to help you do this.” It looks like a collaborative relationship, but at its heart, it cannot possibly be a collaborative relationship, because the government telling these companies to do this has an implied threat within it.

The government regulates these companies. The government has tremendous powers to make these companies succeed or fail. And so, when it gives these kinds of instructions, the implied threat is that we can destroy your company.

Normally, the U.S. Constitution would protect against these kinds of things. It was built into the very fabric of our government agencies that this would be something so far out of bounds they wouldn’t do it. It’s one thing if you have the government say, “This guy is an international criminal terrorist.” You can understand how there may need to be some kind of line of communication around that.

But the line between that and suppressing scientific discussion, suppressing policy discussion should have been a bright red line that never should have been crossed. The government agencies essentially decided to treat scientific debate on COVID policy as if we were dissidents who were on the other side of the government, as if they were just like those international terrorists in some sense. They thought it was okay to suppress those kinds of people and those kinds of ideas.

As an American citizen, it’s not right for the American government to have that kind of power. The basic fundamental American norm is free speech. I understand there are nuances around exactly what that means. Free speech is not the freedom to reach everybody, but at its very heart it is permitting a space for debate to take place among scientists and policy makers and concerned members of the public on vital policy issues.

The government decided through its actions that they didn’t want to let that happen during the pandemic. Again, as a result, it’s really not about me, it’s about the fact that we would have won this debate about lockdown policy. So many people that were harmed would not have been harmed. These vaccine mandates would not have been in place.

People wouldn’t have lost their jobs or careers over them. The schools would’ve opened earlier. The panic mongering would’ve been addressed, so the anxiety and depression problems that we are seeing might have been less. The economic devastation from the lockdown policies might have been avoided, at least to some degree.

From all of these consequences, the conclusion I take away from that is that this censorship activity killed people. Ironically, during the pandemic, we heard all these things like we can’t have free speech during the pandemic. The constitution is not a suicide pact. Ironically, had the First Amendment actually been in place during the pandemic, it would have saved lives, would have led to less damage and destruction with fewer people dead.

Mr. Jekielek:

From the numbers I’ve seen, I think by considerable margin?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes, there’s no question, just take the damage to poor people around the world. There was an estimate that the World Bank put out that a hundred million additional people, as a consequence of the economic dislocation caused by just the early lockdowns, were thrown into dire poverty, living on less than $2 a day of income. And many of those people starved.

Many of them didn’t send their kids to school. Actually in poor countries, they put their kids to work, and pulled their kids out of school entirely. Uganda is a good example of this. Four-and-a-half million kids never came back to school after two years of school closures. A lot of them, especially the young girls, were sold into sexual slavery because the families couldn’t feed them. When you take an action as dramatic as a lockdown, you set in motion a whole domino set of effects.

You talked about supply chains. The end point of a supply chain is some poor person in some poor country that’s reorganized its economy to fit into the global economy. He loses his job, can’t feed his family, and then he has to make a terrible choice between starving, or exploiting his kids so that they don’t starve.

These are the kinds of things that policymakers really need to be thinking about when they make these decisions. We didn’t think about them. They didn’t think about them because the people that would’ve brought them up were being suppressed.

Mr. Jekielek:

You wrote this piece in Tablet about what happened at Stanford. You mentioned suicidal ideation. You mentioned people not getting their medical checkups. Ostensibly, the lockdowns were to prevent hospital overrun, but the hospitals were actually empty. Not all of them, but more so than normal. It was a cataclysmic social intervention that, as you say, had these very, very far-reaching effects.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

We’re going to be paying for them for a very long time. Some kids were out of school for a short time, let’s just say in the United States. Some kids were out of school for not just a short time, but a very long time. There’s social science literature that precedes the pandemic that found even short interruptions to kids schooling has long-term consequences for the kids.

They end up being poorer as adults, more likely to have chronic illness, and they live shorter lives. It’s not equally distributed. It’s the poor kids that suffer the most from this, because there’s no making it up, or less of making it up. It’s a generational driver of inequality that we created during the pandemic.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re involved in a number of efforts to try to rectify some of these things. We started with these lockdowns, then it went to various types of mandates. Now, there’s a whole discussion of were these vaccines rolled out too quickly? What exactly happened? What are the incentive structures with big pharma?

You’re involved in numerous groups that are trying to wrestle with this. One example that we’ve covered recently is the Norfolk Group that has a whole series of recommendations on what questions to ask to figure out what really happened. That’s how I read it. Just briefly tell me about that and what should we do now with this reality?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

There have been a number of attempts to try to do an after-action report about the pandemic. The Democratic House, for instance, conducted one. There have been a couple of other COVID commissions, the idea of which is a good one in the sense that after natural disasters, after plane crashes, after terrible things, after a patient dies in a hospital, you come together with the experts that are involved, sometimes outside experts, and you do an honest assessment of what went wrong with the goal of reforming the process so that it doesn’t happen again.

The problem is that these after-action reports have been conducted by people who made the decisions in favor of the lockdowns. As a result, they have not asked the critical questions that need to be asked to really do an honest after-action report. For instance, why was the immunity after COVID infection ignored in basic decision-making? The science was really clear in 2020.

What were the forecasting models that were used to justify lockdown? There was a lot of evidence that those models were deeply inaccurate even at the time. Why was that evidence ignored? Why were the schools closed for such a long time when the evidence from around the world, especially in Europe, was showing that wasn’t necessary?

Mr. Jekielek:

I’ll add one. Why was vaccination chosen as the one route to solving the problem, when you had a highly mutable, highly mutating type of virus that made the vaccines quickly outdated at the outset, and this was known?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I would phrase that question, “Why did people think that vaccination would lead to permanent protection against infection, when there wasn’t evidence from the randomized trials confirming that was true? These are both scientific questions and policy questions. Why were lockdown harms not considered? Normally, when you take an action, the regulatory agencies have to do a benefit-harm calculation. You can’t just pretend there’s only benefits, especially for a lockdown policy, which almost certainly causes deep harm.

If you don’t consider the lockdown harms, then of course you can’t consider how to mitigate them. These questions have to be asked and any honest COVID inquiry will ask those questions. It may be a question of who, but to me, the emphasis is on the what and why. If we answer those what and why questions, we will be in a much better position to make reforms so that the disaster of lockdowns does not recur. Nearly every prominent institution in the world that should have protected us failed. That disaster shouldn’t be repeated.

But if we don’t ask those questions, Jan, it will be repeated, because of what has happened in the commissions that have already come up. They have just whitewashed it. They have whitewashed the lockdowns. And they have institutionalized the lockdown strategy as the strategy that they will follow in future pandemics.

That’s where we are currently. It’s not a theoretical matter. These institutions, in order to avoid embarrassment, have said that they did a good job without ever asking the critical questions. This might have led people to conclude that they didn’t do a good job.

For the questions that we put in the Norfolk Group document, there may be good answers to them. There may be answers where you say, “Okay, yes. They did a good job on this.” You can understand why they did that. But if you don’t ask those questions, you can’t get good answers and you can’t get good reform.

You can’t get a good policy. Where we are now, when there’s another respiratory virus pandemic, we will lock down again and we will use the vaccine-only strategy. The Biden administration actually put out a policy idea where the goal in the next pandemic will be to get a vaccine in 130 days.

There’s a few things about that. If you are aiming at a vaccine in 130 days, what that means is you can’t test the vaccine for very long, maybe for one month. You probably can’t recruit very many people, so you’re going to  approve a vaccine in 130 days, and recommend it at scale with pretty inadequate testing.

What are you going to do for those 130 days? There is this deadly disease going around. At least that’s what the authorities will say. And there’s this promise that the science is going to produce the vaccine in 130 days. What we’ll do is we’ll lock down for four months in anticipation of the vaccine.

The de facto policy now for respiratory virus pandemics going forward into the future is the policy that we followed, this disastrous policy that didn’t protect us against COVID, and that led to all the lockdowns. That is the current policy of the United States, and it’s the current policy of many countries around the world.

We need an honest discussion, and an honest commission that actually asks the hard questions, which is what the Norfolk Group document is.  It is providing an agenda for what those questions might be. Of course, there’s going to be more. We welcome more. It’s going to happen again.

Mr. Jekielek:

On the vaccine side, you even have Dr. Anthony Fauci saying that these things don’t work very well. After all of this, what was your response to that?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I think you’re referring to an article that he published recently where he talked about mucosal immunity.

Mr. Jekielek:


Dr. Bhattacharya:

Mucosal immunity would be as follows; not to get overly technical, but there are immune mechanisms in your nose where generally, when you’re first exposed to these viruses, they are effective at neutralizing them. And then, there’s the immunity that is in all of your body, with different kinds of mechanisms of protecting you. The vaccine that we used for the pandemic relied on your systemic immunity, the immunity in your body, as opposed to the mucosal immunity in your nose.

Again, not to be overly technical, the article that he wrote, if I understand it correctly, was making an argument that mucosal immunity would be potentially more effective for respiratory viruses, than the systemic immunity that we use for the vaccines.

I can understand some uncertainty around that. To me it seems pretty clear that would be the case, but it might be difficult to have a vaccine produced that can stimulate your mucosal immunity that would work. There may be technical problems with that, and so you can still understand a strategy of trying to do systemic immunity.

What I can’t understand is that Tony Fauci through much of 2021 and even in 2020 was essentially promising that the vaccines that we developed would neutralize the disease, and would protect you against getting sick and spreading the disease.

On the basis of that idea, an idea that he couldn’t possibly have known was true, and in fact in retrospect turned out to be false, he recommended vaccine passports. He recommended vaccine mandates, because if you have 80 per cent of the population with a sterilizing vaccine, it’s above the herd immunity threshold and it’s permanent.

You can really pretty much get the disease down to very, very low levels. You don’t have to worry about it ever again. That was the logic he had. But that logic was premised on something you could not possibly have known was true.

It’s funny to see him now write this article where, in a way, he is indirectly questioning the premise of the policy recommendations he made to two presidents. On the basis of those policy recommendations, so many people lost their jobs. So many people felt discriminated against. So many people lost confidence in public health, which essentially promised, through the vaccine, a prevention that was almost like an eradication of COVID. That was never, ever going to be possible.

Mr. Jekielek:

We also learned it wasn’t even tested by the manufacturers, if I recall, from some of the Pfizer testimonies.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes, the randomized trials. What they did is they recruited a lot of patients. I wish they had recruited more older people. They could have had one of two clinical endpoints that would have been useful epidemiologically. They could have checked for prevention of severe disease. That would have been really useful, because then you can use the vaccine for focused protection.

You can prove that it protects against severe disease, or they could have checked for prevention of infection. They didn’t check for either of the two. What they checked for is prevention of symptomatic infection. They did this for about two months, and they found 95 per cent efficacy against symptomatic infection. When I saw that evidence I reasoned  that if you prevent symptomatic infection, it’s likely you prevent severe disease. You can’t get severe disease without a symptomatic infection.

Sunetra Gupta and I wrote an article in December of 2020 arguing for using the vaccine for focused protection of older people. The argument was essentially a balance of risks. We don’t know all of the side effects of the vaccine, but we do know that COVID is a very deadly disease for older people. So if you reduce the risk of severe disease and death, this unbalance goes away.

Mr. Jekielek:

Was this the cost-benefit analysis?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

For younger people it’s much less important because the harm of COVID is much less. Tony Fauci, Rochelle Walensky, Debbie Birx, and many others looked at the same evidence of prevention of symptomatic disease, and assumed that meant that it also prevented all infection and also prevented transmission.

That’s a logical leap that’s just false. You can’t make that logical leap even in December of 2020. And yet, they made that logical leap. They premised their policy recommendations—the vaccine passports, the mandates, the coercion, and also the gaslighting of people who are actually vaccine injured on this idea that we have to get a sufficient fraction of the population vaccinated for the disease to go away.

The problem was not only was it not justified at the time on the basis of the Pfizer trial, it actually turned out to be false. So many countries, even in late spring, early summer 2021 that were heavily vaccinated saw huge numbers of cases. The vaccine wasn’t stopping transmission. It was very clear from that.

Rather than back down and say, “Look, let’s use this for focused protection,” they doubled down on it and recommended more vaccine mandates, more requirements that young men and women in college get vaccinated, when the evidence never supported the need for those folks to get vaccinated or for the disease to go away.

Mr. Jekielek:

I just have to touch on this too. There are newer bivalent vaccines which have even less evidence around whether they are safe or even efficacious in any way, from what I can tell. What do you make of this?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

After the big trials you can see they were trying to be responsible with the trials in 2020. They were trying to do a real serious study to check whether the vaccines had the effect they wanted to. They recruited tens of thousands of people. For the boosters, they made an assumption that if some booster induces you to get antibodies in your blood it’s probably going to have some good effect. But they don’t know that.

Now, with the flu we do that and there’s some reason for it. It’s called immune bridging. The idea is that the flu vaccine produces antibodies that are good against the current circulating flu in test subjects. Then, that means that it will protect you against severe disease from the flu, maybe even infection from the flu.

Now, that’s an assumption that we don’t know for certain. But in the flu, there’s a lot more evidence going back decades that it might be a reasonable thing. Here you have a new vaccine, a disease that’s not the flu, and they made that assumption that you could use this immune bridging idea. Just test the bivalent booster, the new version of the vaccine, and see if it produces the antibodies.

And if it produces antibodies, I can assume this can protect you against severe disease and death, and protect you against transmitting disease. Essentially, the evidence-based standards on which we would normally decide whether to approve of these updates were essentially gutted by the FDA when they did this. You can see what happened. There’s almost no uptake of these bivalent boosters.

Mr. Jekielek:

So, with people, there’s some awareness of this reality.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes. One of the meetings where they approved the bivalent boosters used a presentation from the expert committees at the CDC that was based on eight mice or some small number of mice rather than humans at all. If I were on that committee, I would have demanded that the manufacturers produce human evidence with a real meaningful clinical endpoint. If you ask them to run a randomized trial and we won’t approve the vaccine unless you run one, they would have run one. That is a failure of the regulators there. By the way, that’s one of the questions in document one of the Norfolk Group.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to go back to these groups that you’re participating in to try to assess all of this. It’s almost like it got worse somehow. What didn’t work was doubled down on, and then the standards were lowered subsequently, which just strains all credulity. It’s just out in the open. Does this make any sense to you at all?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

It’s the power of groupthink married to power. You have a relatively small number of very powerful science bureaucrats who surround themselves with people that won’t tell them that they’ve gone wrong. That’s why that fringe epidemiology thing is so telling. You have these outside experts telling you you’re wrong, “They must be fringe, because our group thinks it’s right.” They thought they were right. That’s the danger, Jan. They thought they were so right that they could exclude outside voices.

And there was the doubling down as the evidence started getting worse and worse about the policies they suggested, or that their reading of the science is wrong. It’s very difficult for powerful people to say, “Yes, we got it wrong,” and change their minds. I’ve seen a few, but it’s very, very rare that it happens. The scientific establishment, especially the scientific bureaucracies in the World Health Organization and in the U.S. government and many other places just dug their heels in and doubled down, exactly the way you said.

Mr. Jekielek:

On the one side there’s censorship and there’s shadow-banning or your inability to be on the trends list. But on the other hand, what that creates is effectively this ability to shape the illusion of consensus. I never grasped how powerful these tools were.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

In 1500 in Europe, if you wanted to know the truth, you would look to your priests. There would be these trusted centers of authority that would tell you, “Here’s what’s true, here’s what’s false.” Those centers of authority were rooted in the Christian religion. When those trusted centers of authority went outside of their real expertise, they got things very, very wrong. The persecution of Galileo was a good example of this.

In the modern world, the analogy of the Christian clerisy then, is the scientific bureaucracy and scientists now. If you want to know what’s true and false, you follow the science. But science isn’t like that. Science is complicated. At its heart, there’s this deep humility that we’re up against our ignorance about how the world actually works, and there is this method to try to develop it at the same time. So, you have this humble method that’s trying to slowly expand our knowledge about the way the physical world works.

At the same time, you have the tremendous power from being at the top of this clerisy that can distinguish true from false unerringly. And then, based on that, policy gets made. People get excluded from society because they have an idea that is out of sorts with what the supposed consensus is.

It’s the same problem that the Middle Ages faced. You have a high priest, and a clerisy that has divorced itself from the actual scientific method that gives it power, opining in places and making decisions in places where they don’t actually know what is true or false. But in the minds of many, many people who don’t know how to read science—like infectious disease epidemiology, it’s a complicated subject—it’s not surprising that so many people don’t know how to read it.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that you have someone like Tony Fauci going around on TV in a sort of avuncular way conveying to the world that he is some knowledgeable guru who can tell the difference between true and false unerringly, even when he changes his mind five minutes later, and even though the things that he’s saying are not connected to actual science. It has a tremendous influence on the minds of people and we have to figure out systems to allow that to not happen.

Mr. Jekielek:

When what you just described is married to a structure that is our public square, which is Big Tech, it can say this voice will be amplified, and the other voices will be hidden, without you even realizing it.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

You put your finger on the key mechanism to guard against what we’ve gone through. The key mechanism is to allow a very large diverse set of voices to be heard, and not allow the government’s power to render scientists that disagree with the government off to the fringe. We must permit dissent. The scientific process involves debate and discussion.

So I can say, “I have a hypothesis. It has some implications about what I expect to see in the data. You have a different hypothesis. You expect different things in the data.” We don’t fight. What we do is we go collect data and evidence and run experiments, and on the basis of that, the experiment may come out in the way they predicted, not my way.

Then, I can say, “Now, your hypothesis is more likely to be true than mine. Maybe someone else will come along and have a different idea about what’s going on with implications that you didn’t think about and now you run experiments.” It’s a conversation. It’s a debate. It’s a discussion. It often gets very heated because people are very attached to the way they think about the world. But that’s fine. You want that debate and discussion.

Now, of course, there’s a whole range of scientific topics. The earth is round, and there really isn’t a debate on that. People who say the earth is flat, you can pretty much dismiss them because there’s tremendous evidence that Earth is round. You don’t have to refight that over and over again.

But on the most important scientific matters, things where it’s not known what’s true and false yet, because we’re still in the midst of our ignorance over it, you have to have that debate. On the edge of scientific discussion and scientific knowledge is controversy and debate. If you don’t allow that process to happen, science is dead.

Mr. Jekielek:

We first met in Florida when you were advising Governor DeSantis. You joined a new commission that he created. Please tell me about that, how it works, what it hopes to accomplish, and can this be replicated.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

It’s a public health integrity commission. It was started in December of 2022. There’s a number of very prominent epidemiologists on it, including Martin Kulldorff, Christine Stabell Benn from Denmark, Tracy Beth Hoeg, and Joseph Ladapo, the surgeon general of Florida.

The goal of the committee is essentially to provide a second opinion when the CDC gets something wrong. Sometimes they’ll get things right and we’ll say it. Now, we’re still starting to figure out how this is going to work. It’s not all completely set up yet. It’s been a few months and we’re still just a few months into it. We’re still learning how the process is going to work.

But the ultimate aim is to say, “Look, the CDC says X. Here’s our scientific view of it.” Actually, what I would love to have happen is why just Florida? This should happen all over the country. Every state should have their own second opinion of CDC policy decision-making.

It’s not like the CDC is some oracular power that knows best and can distinguish truth and false. Let’s have a lot of voices. Let’s have those commissions all over the country, and all over the world. Let’s set up an institutional structure where you are allowed to contradict the CDC when they get it wrong.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had this idea, and I still have this idea. There are things that public health can do that are really quite good. If you contradict them, especially with some authorities, you’re committing a sinful act. If I tell you, Jan, that smoking is good for you, as a professor of Stanford University School of Medicine, I’ve committed a sin.

People may listen to me. By the way, folks, smoking is bad for you, really bad for you. Don’t do it if you can. But I’ve committed a sin if I tell you that it might be okay. By contradicting public health orders, I might actually convince some people to do things that everyone believes are dangerous.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay. Let me just jump in for one second. But what you really should do as a doctor or public health official is tell me what the cost-benefit is here. Maybe I really like smoking and I’m ready to take the risk of cancer. This doesn’t mean I’m going to get lung cancer, it just means my risk is higher.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes, that’s right. I agree with that, Jan. Public health works best when we reason with people. We don’t force people to do things. We tell people, “Here’s what the evidence says. Here’s where it’s strong. Here’s where it’s weak.” Now, we have to do it in a certain way because a lot of the material is technical, so I want to be able to connect with people without getting deep into the weeds on the technical stuff, but also being true to the technical stuff.

That kind of public health communication when it’s effective is really, really powerful, because it’s persuasive in a way that doesn’t run roughshod over your autonomy. You’re not just listening to me because of my authority. You’re listening to me because I’ve provided you with evidence that convinces you that this is the right thing to do. Jan, if you listen to the evidence, and you understand it and say, “Okay. Well, I’ve got to smoke.” I’m not going to approve of it, but I’m also not going to force you to listen to me.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is what I’m getting at. What I’m saying is that by telling people smoking is bad, but attaching this moral veneer, that this is just bad, that’s shorthand. That’s easy to do. It’ll reduce the number of deaths, but you’re not actually telling someone the truth of the situation.

You’re not giving them the evidenced, reasoned response. Maybe it’s because you think that they’re not smart enough to really deal with the reality. Maybe they’ll make the wrong choice because the right choice is for them to not smoke. This is the mentality that we’ve seen.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

You’ve absolutely nailed it. The right way to communicate that smoking is bad for you is by telling them why it’s bad for you. “Here’s what the evidence is. There is all this evidence that your rate of lung cancer will go up, whatever the fraction is of people looked at in scientific studies. Here’s the rate of heart disease. Here’s the rate of all these maligned events. Are you certain to get all of these? No, but you’ve raised your risk of these things.”

And then, let people make their own decisions. That will be much more effective in the long run than if you make some pronouncement like, “If you get the COVID vaccine, you will not get COVID, you will not pass COVID on.” It turned out to be false. Now all of a sudden, who’s going to believe the person that said that?

The only real way for public health to be effective is to treat the people that they’re supposed to represent, the people they’re supposed to help, as reasoning adults with moral autonomy, not like chattel or children to be manipulated or nudged, or made to do exactly what public health wants them to do.

The responsibility for public health officials is to convey the science as it is, as honestly as possible. When there’s uncertainty in the science, when there isn’t a consensus, don’t lie and say there is one. And when there actually is a consensus like smoking causes lung cancer, just convey that.

The problem during the pandemic is that public health abdicated responsibility to convey scientific ideas, ideas about benefit and harm in a reasonable way. They treated people like children, as opposed to treating people like adults and reasoning with them.

Mr. Jekielek:

Where are we at today?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Right now the policy situation is actually quite grim due to how public health has looked at lockdowns. Most people have moved on. The compliance and the fear, a lot of that has just dissolved away. People mostly think that COVID is over in one sense or the other, at least as far as their own lives are concerned. They don’t view it with the same kind of concern that they did in March 2020.

At the same time, the governments have essentially institutionalized these policies. We haven’t firmly repudiated them, and so we’re in actually quite a dangerous place. Because as I said, if there’s another respiratory virus pandemic, it will happen again. The legal authority, the regulatory precedent, and the fact that this power exists to impose the lockdowns is now institutionally part of government.

With a lot of the assessments, there has been a whitewash of what happened. There is this disconnect that needs to get fixed. I don’t believe if the people actually knew how unnecessary the lockdowns were that they would ever want them again. Now, many, many people feel the harms of the lockdowns themselves. They feel it deeply, but they can’t articulate exactly what went wrong or why it was unnecessary.

We have to have an honest discussion, and I would hope that it would be bipartisan. I don’t see any reason why it needs to be inherently political, because it’s a failure of public health in my view. Public health isn’t supposed to be Democrat or Republican. It’s just supposed to be public health. So, the polity has a responsibility to do the assessment in the bipartisan way of public health, which is supposed to serve the polity.

That’s where we are now. We are in a situation where people feel like it’s over. There’s a lot of relief. Of course, COVID is still floating around. It will be here forever, so it’s not over in that sense, but the danger it poses is gone. We don’t want the disruptions to continue anymore in our lives. Public health authorities want to take a victory lap. They can’t really, but they can whitewash their sins. That’s the situation we currently find ourselves in.

Mr. Jekielek:

I have to stress this. I find it difficult to find a single policy that was good. I’m sure there is one, but in these large, very socially impactful decisions across the board, I find it very difficult in talking to many experts to find anything that was substantive. It feels like the entire thing needs a reworking.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

You could point to some focused protection policy. In Germany I saw some cities that had organized free taxi rides for older people to go to the grocery store. There was an attempt to deliver food to older people in their homes. Governor DeSantis actually had this great idea for a policy where there was this therapy called monoclonal antibodies. You had to get it with an IV. Normally, you would have to go to the hospital to get it. He organized…

Mr. Jekielek:

The infusion sites.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

People could actually just call and then the infusion site would come to them in their home, for older people and vulnerable people. There were some good policies. All the policies that were focused on protecting older people in ways that didn’t destroy their autonomy were actually quite good.

It’s not to say that everything we did was wrong. I don’t agree with that, but I think that so much that we did was wrong. So much that we did in the name of public health was unethical, and so much that we did in the name of public health was so destructive.

You have to have an honest assessment or else the public is never going to trust public health again. Public health isn’t going to deserve that. And yet, the government power to enforce public health ideas is going to remain in place. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Mr. Jekielek:

Unfortunately, in a number of recent interviews, we’ve been exposing very convincing, foundational problems in different societal structures. In this case, we’re more focused on public health. It can leave people who are watching and who are just realizing this really distraught and to some extent kind of hopeless. Because like you said, things mostly went wrong. Some leadership is patting itself on the back and pushing for more. What do you see as the best path forward for the typical person that is faced with this reality?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

There has to be an honest assessment of whether the leaders of public health want it or not. Too many people have been hurt and too many people sense that there were huge mistakes made, at the very least, if you want to call them that.

So, there needs to be an assessment. The only question is the form of it. And for the folks at home, what can you do? You can ask your school leaders, “What was that two years of school closure about? What are you doing to address the gaps in knowledge that happened?”

You can go to the nursing home where your mom or dad is and say, “When they were depressed, why didn’t you let me come and say hello? Why didn’t you try to figure out some safe ways to allow humane treatment?” You go to the hospital where your parents died and say, “Look, why didn’t you let me say goodbye?” You can push your elected leaders for reform so that things like this never happen again.

There are things that happened to you during the lockdown that were bad during the last two-and-a-half years as a result of the lockdown policies, and as a result of the fear mongering. You can constructively use that hurt to push leaders to acknowledge the harm and to make reforms. That’s really the source of my hope—that all these people that were hurt, and the populace at large coming to understand what happened wasn’t necessary, and we can do better.

In my deepest heart, I believe that will happen if we can just get the agenda in front of the people, saying, “Here are the questions to ask your leaders,” and to actually ask for new leadership in those institutions that failed. I think that can happen. I think that will happen. I think it’s inevitable that it will happen.

The only question is how can we help the process along, and make it as constructive as possible? I’m not interested in Nuremberg 2.0. That’s tremendously destructive. What I’m interested in is deep institutional reform, and this is still the United States, a country that responds to people, and that is driven by the people.

Government is for the people. Government is by the people. As corny as it sounds, it is still true. We just need to give the people a voice and a set of questions to ask, and that’s what I hope to be able to do.

Mr. Jekielek:

Jay Bhattacharya, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Thank you, Jan. That was so much fun.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

This transcript was edited for clarity and brevity.

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