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«Stanford has failed to protect academic freedom»

Jay Bhattacharya is a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. He is a physician, epidemiologist, health economist and public health policy expert specializing in infectious diseases and vulnerable populations. His anti-lockdown positions have led to him being ostracized by the Ivy League University that employs him and blacklisted by Twitter. L'Impertinent managed to get a privileged interview with this scientist whose sacrifices provided crucial expertise during the Covid crisis.

© DR

 

Read this article in french here

 

Amèle Debey, for L'Impertinent: At what point did you realize that something was wrong with this crisis?


Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: It was at the very beginning of the pandemic, around January or February 2020. Having written about H1N1 in 2009, I remembered literature that showed that the early estimates of the death toll in this pandemic were very exaggerated. There were a series of studies done to measure the prevalence of antibodies in the population. In 2009, for every case identified, there were a thousand people with antibodies. This suggested that they had recovered from their infection.


The mortality rate, initially estimated at 4 or 5%, was in fact 0.01%. So 99.99% chance of surviving the swine flu.


I wondered if this could be the case with Covid as well. We didn't know, because no one had done a study to measure the antibodies. So that was the first thought that crossed my mind: that the mortality rates were not based on data, but on assumptions that had not been tested or proven. The same mistakes that were made at the beginning of the H1N1 pandemic.


Is the pandemic over?


The decision to declare the end of a pandemic is political, not purely epidemiological. Some places have not yet made this political decision.


What is it that keeps you fighting now? When you could be doing something else.


I wish I could! The political response to the pandemic has done enormous damage to children, to the poor, to workers around the world. Decision-making at the highest political levels has simply ignored these populations and adopted means that I believe are deeply unethical. Panic, moralizing the disease, creating discriminatory policies to create outcasts.


All of these policies, I believe, fundamentally violated public health ethics. And the whole idea of lockdown itself was misguided from the start, in my opinion. I think we need to revise the way we manage pandemics in the future. Learn the right lessons. And that's why I'm still involved. I want to help people understand that the pandemic policies we've been following are not compatible with liberal democracy, and that at any moment, if we have another respiratory infectious disease outbreak, our fundamental values will be thrown aside.


So I think science belongs to the conversation but shouldn't have been the only part of that conversation. Other values, human rights, ethical conduct are also important. Even during a pandemic, perhaps especially so during a pandemic.


I want to work on restoring public health ethics on a firmer ground that's more compatible with liberal democracy.


Do you think it is possible?


Yes. I think it's possible. I think a lot of what has happened is due to fear and flawed data. A very small number of public health bureaucrats have dominated the conversation, silenced the critics, made it seem like there is a scientific consensus in favor of their vision of management.


What matters to me is to make sure that other voices are involved when a pandemic happens, that they are not marginalized. That other people than this narrow group of bureaucrats are also involved in the decision making. This fear-based censorship is not a tool for managing a pandemic.


I think if we convince the public that everyone's voice has a place in the conversation, then we will win.


Going back to Stanford. Are you still teaching there?


Yes, I am. In fact, I just taught a health economics course last term. I've been teaching there for 22 years. But the last three years have been mind-bogglingly difficult for me there.


Why?


You can think of academic freedom in two ways. One is a very narrow view, where people are not fired for having opinions opposed to those of an academic leader. In that sense, Stanford has met the standards of academic freedom, because I wasn't fired. And that's good, I guess.


More generally, however, I would say that Stanford failed to protect academic freedom. There were a number of prominent professors at Stanford who opposed confinement, or who had different ideas from the prevailing orthodoxy. People like John Ioannidis, the very famous scientist who opposed containment. Michael Levitt, a Nobel Prize winner, of course Scott Atlas, and a few others.


"At one point I was afraid to walk on campus"

Rather than accepting the fact that professors disagreed with each other about the merits of the measures and holding seminars or conferences where all points of view were respected, Stanford created an atmosphere conducive to demonizing people who opposed the prevailing policy.


It made my life very difficult. It was a very hostile work environment. At one point I was afraid to walk on campus.


That bad?


It's better now. But in 2020 and 2021, it was terrible. Particularly because there was a poster campaign accusing me of killing people in Florida because of my advocacy for open schools.


So has Stanford stopped acting like a school?


What would normally happen, from an academic institution that is truly committed to academic freedom, is the hosting of an open discussion.


I'll just give you an example: normally, medical schools host something called Grand Rounds every week. That's where a member presents their research or ideas to the entire medical school. Every week during the pandemic, there were 150 lectures devoted to policy and medicine about Covid. But not once were John Ioannidis, Scott Atlas, Mike Levitt, or myself invited. Nor was anyone else opposed to lockdown for that matter.


Stanford did everything it could to marginalize our views. When in fact I think our views represented a large number of scientists in the community at large, even outside of Stanford.


Aren't they? Statistically marginal?


The thing is that I don't believe there was a scientific consensus in favor of lockdown. When we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration in October 2020, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford and I, tens of thousands of scientists signed it almost immediately.


Many of those who were opposed to lockdowns held their tongues because they were afraid of being subjected to the kind of vilification and demonization that I faced, as well as others besides myself who also spoke out.


I think very powerful science bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci abuse their position. They control the funding of scientists. As you know, Tony Fauci is the head of the National Institute for Disease Control and Funding. He's sitting on $6 billion. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institute of Health (NIH), is sitting on $45 billion of money that goes to the work of scientists. But not just to lab work. Also to the social status of scientists.


"Some scientists who signed the Great Barrington Declaration lost their jobs"

For example, I am a tenured professor at Stanford. To get tenure, I had to get a big grant from the NIH. If you don't get those grants, you don't get promoted, you don't get the social status that allows you to have access to good students, more resources for equipment and so on.


When Tony Fauci or Francis Collins say that those who oppose them are talking nonsense, are dangerous, or are helping to spread the threat of the virus - even if it's not true - the implicit danger is: if I speak out, I risk losing my livelihood. My ability to do science is threatened.


But when tens of thousands of people stand up as one to say the same thing, why does the fear remain?


Some scientists who signed the Great Barrington Declaration lost their jobs. Some have had courses withdrawn. Others were excluded from their colleagues' grant applications. It was a huge act of courage for people to sign it. And, you know, scientists are human, they don't want to deal with that kind of ostracism. A lot of people who thought that lockdown was harmful to poor people and children were silent because of that, I think.


Wasn't there also some fear of the virus? And not just the impact on their careers?


You can explain the actions of some scientists and some people by fear, absolutely. Because as you say, we are all human and subject to that. The question is whether scientists act as scientists in their analytical capacity. Whether or not they let that fear influence their judgment. It is their job as experts in these fields to overcome that fear and say what they think the right policy should be.


In March 2020, that may have been fear. But by October of that year, I think it was less fear and more intimidation and censorship that led scientists to remain silent.


What about you? Why didn't you stay silent?


I'm not very smart.


Let's say this hypothesis is not convincing, what other explanation is there?


If I had remained silent when I honestly believed that we were following the wrong policy in an area I have expertise in, then there would be no purpose to my career. I had to speak up because I think a lot of people were harmed by that policy. It was wrong. And if people who have degrees and knowledge are silent about it... I couldn't. It was not possible. I would have seen my career as a failure. I paid a high price for speaking out, but if I had to do it again, I would.


Let's talk about Twitter for a moment. You were one of the voices that were blacklisted before Elon Musk took over. Were you aware of that?


When I joined Twitter in August 2021, I gained a lot of followers very quickly. I had almost 200,000 followers. So I was under the impression that some of my messages were reaching many people. Only, I joined Twitter to reach people who didn't necessarily agree with me and it was very clear that this was not the case.


When I learned about the Twitter blacklist, I understood why: Twitter imposed this restriction on my tweets so that they would never appear in the trending list, so that they would not be seen by people who did not follow me directly. And so, as a result, it limited the reach of my message.


So people are not confronted with conflicting opinions. In that sense, both Stanford and Twitter have failed in their mission. That of allowing people who don't necessarily agree to learn from each other. This marks a lack of commitment to free speech. I think that's one of the reasons why our Covid policy has failed so badly.


What was the reason behind the blacklisting, in your opinion?


I think it's partly at the behest of the U.S. federal government. Because I am involved in a lawsuit brought by the Louisiana and Missouri Attorneys General's offices and the New Civil Liberties Alliance against the Biden administration.


That lawsuit uncovered dozens of emails and evidence that numerous regulatory agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services were in contact with major technology companies, including Twitter.


"This censorship started under President Trump"

They were telling them what to censor, in many cases who to censor, in relation to the debate and policy of Covid. They would tell Twitter, for example, that this or that opinion is misinformation and should be removed. They would send lists of words that Twitter would then use to decide who to blacklist, who to follow, who to ban.


So I think a lot of the actions of the big technology companies were done at the behest of the government.


At the beginning of the pandemic, it was Donald Trump who was in charge though, right?


I think this censorship started under President Trump and then continued and expanded under Biden.


You went to meet Elon Musk at the Twitter offices. What did you think of him?


I was very impressed. I only spent an hour or two with him, but I wanted to understand why he was doing what he was doing. Because it seemed to me that his actions put Twitter in legal jeopardy. Before he bought the company, it was conducting illegal actions and he exposed them to the world.


For him to release the #TwitterFiles is an act of restoring free speech in our society.


Does he plan on destroying Twitter?


I think it's the opposite. He has given Twitter its purpose back. Instead of destroying it, he has revived it and made it a place where free speech can be exercised, where people can talk to each other.


Twitter is very important. It's the only place where people with very different points of view can meet in the public square. So I think Musk has actually saved Twitter.


I don't know anything about Twitter's finances. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the social aspect of it. And I think Musk helped restore free speech that was damaged during the Covid pandemic.


Don't you think that anyone with such power is necessarily dangerous?


I don't think Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, wanted to suppress speech. I think there was enormous pressure put on him and on Big Tech in general, Google, Facebook, etc., by governments who wanted to annihilate contradictory ideas during the pandemic.


They succeeded in getting the big tech companies to act. They have enormous power, but I don't think they are naturally inclined to use that power to censor people or ideas. The problem is that during the pandemic, they acted as tools of the government.


Have you noticed any problems with your Wikipedia page?


Oh, yes. I didn't have a Wikipedia page before the pandemic, but you'd swear it was written by my detractors.


I have no control over that. I'm not going to spend my time policing it. I can't control what people say about me. But this page is absolutely one-sided in its description of the Great Barrington Declaration.


Also, the last time I looked, there were fundamental errors in my biography. It was inaccurate in many ways. And, you know, I've had a long career. This page just focuses on one part. There's a good reason why students are told not to rely on Wikipedia. I got to experience it firsthand.


Tell us a little bit about the Great Barrington Declaration. What is it about?


For those who are interested, they can go to the website. It's a very short document, one page. But the site also has links to supporting documents that explain the science behind it.


The basic idea is very simple: there is a significant gradation in the risk that Covid infection puts people at. Older people are a thousand times more likely to die from the infection than younger people. And the overall risk to young people is tiny compared to the other risks they face in their lives. Lockdown, in particular, imposes enormous harm on children and younger, healthier people. Confinement harms the general population.


What the Great Barrington Declaration called for was a focus on protecting the elderly. So when vaccines came along, I was a big advocate for focusing on the elderly, vaccinating them and letting them live. And then the other thing she's asking for is to lift the closures, to reduce the number of restrictions on the lives of younger people, especially children who are suffering tremendously, not so much in Switzerland as in the United States, from school closures and a whole host of other restrictions in their lives. That's all.


What you have to understand about this Declaration is that it represents the old way of dealing with respiratory virus pandemics: identify high-risk groups, try to develop vaccines and therapies as quickly as possible, protect those high-risk groups, but do not disrupt the lives of the rest of the population, because that disruption itself is detrimental to health and well-being.


WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has spoken out against the Declaration. What do you think and do you think that this World Organization still has anything to do with Health?


We wrote it in October 2020. At that time, a very large number of very prominent public health bureaucrats, including Tedros, had advocated containment. These had already caused enormous damage. The UN World Food Programme estimated that 100 million people would face severe malnutrition due to the economic dislocation caused by these early lockdowns. Tens of millions of people around the world have been pushed into poverty as a result of these lockdowns.


When we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, it was a direct challenge to the policies that Tedros and others had proposed that led to these dramatic poverty outcomes. So they were in a difficult position. They could either admit that they had made a huge mistake in March. Or they could refuse to admit it and smear the opponents. They chose the second option. Smear and censor people who disagreed with them.


"Lockdowns persisted long after the vaccines arrived"

The other side of the issue, I think, is that in October 2020, many people in the public health field were looking forward to the development of vaccines that would come out in December 2020. There was no certainty that they would work. Randomized trials were still underway at that time. But these people were very optimistic about the development of these vaccines. So they thought that maybe they could use containment to get to the vaccines. And that once the vaccines were available, the containment measures could be lifted.


But in fact, that was an illusion. Lockdowns persisted long after the vaccines arrived. So did the restrictions on people's lives. Vaccination should have been a way out of confinement, which is what I wrote in a Wall Street Journal article in December 2020. But instead, they were used to implement socially devastating means with vaccine passports and vaccination mandates and then discrimination against the unvaccinated.


The World Health Organization and other organizations have been very slow to recognize that the vaccine does not stop the spread of disease. The vaccine can be used for targeted protection, as we called for in the Great Barrington Declaration, but it cannot be used to eradicate the disease.


What do you think of these vaccines anyway. Are they safe and effective?


For me, it's not a question of safety or danger. The issue is, as with any drug, the risk versus the benefit. You always compare the two for each patient and only recommend if the benefits outweigh the potential side effects.


So I think for the elderly, the vaccines, even though they were only tested for a few months in the randomized trials, clearly protected against serious disease. So there was a very significant benefit for older people who had a high risk rate of death from Covid infection. For younger people, the benefit is less because the death rates from Covid are much lower. So, almost any side effect means you probably shouldn't recommend it. Some younger people may have chronic conditions that increase the benefit. So patients should have been told to go talk to their doctor and decide if this is right for them. On a case-by-case basis. There should never have been any question of social pressure on young people to get vaccinated. That was a mistake. Because vaccines don't stop transmission. Vaccinated or not, you can get and pass on the disease.


Now you're on a grand jury created by Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and Donald Trump's main competitor among Republicans, right?


No, I am not on that jury. There were three things that Ron DeSantis announced in December regarding Covid. The first was the creation of the Public Health Integrity Committee. That's what I'm a part of. The idea is that when the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), makes an announcement or publishes a study based on faulty science, distinguished scientists do a peer review. This is a public integrity committee. It is essentially a second opinion on the CDC.


The second thing is actually this vaccine safety grand jury which is a legal process, which I am not involved in. The idea is, as I understand it, to look at whether or not the manufacturers or developers of vaccines have given the public adequate information about side effects or whether they have exaggerated the benefits.


The third thing is to autopsy people who die after being vaccinated. I'm not involved in that, but the Florida Department of Public Health will do that.


I think all three approaches are helpful. The idea is not to demonize the vaccine manufacturers. Rather, I think, it's to try to develop a better understanding of what these vaccines do or don't do, and then to study them better so that we can develop better vaccines.


Did you see a problem with working with DeSantis, who is part of the hard right and has a ruthless policy on migrants, for example?


I think that as public health scientists, we have an obligation to talk to anyone, regardless of their politics. So I have no problem working with Governor DeSantis. And I found him to be much more open-minded and knowledgeable about the epidemiological literature than many of the other politicians I've had contact with, both on the right and the left.


In fact, I was very impressed by his intelligence and his commitment to the poor, to children, and to the vulnerable. That's what motivated his decision to reopen the schools. He wanted to make sure that the children of Florida had a good education.


I live in California, my kids were out of school for almost a year and a half. So they suffered from that, and a lot of poor families got worse because they couldn't replace school. I don't care so much about the political label. It's the action that matters to me. And if a far-left governor had approached me, I would have given him the same advice.


You don't have to agree on everything to work together, right?


You don't have to agree on anything. And then you know, I have political opinions, but most of the time I keep them to myself because they're not very interesting. I stick to my area of expertise which is public health. I think people misunderstand it.


The obligation in public health is to reach 95%, 98%, 100% of people. If you reach 50% plus one in public health, you are very bad. You are not doing your job well. It's not like politics. You have to reach everyone.


Finally, what do you think of the media treatment of this crisis in the United States?


I think some very brave journalists have spoken out and treated the Great Barrington Declaration and my views fairly. But so many journalists have allowed themselves to be dictated to by Tony Fauci and government bureaucrats. Using their platform to shut down debate or demonize anyone who opposed the confinements.


"Much of the American media aided and abetted a propaganda campaign"

The New York Times and the Washington Post are two newspapers that have never treated opposition to containment fairly. They have always viewed it from a political rather than a public health perspective, and have not fairly reported on the opposition expressed by many, many scientists.


When we wrote the Declaration, I got calls from the New York Times and the Washington Post writing that I wanted to let the virus spread. That was a lie. I wanted to protect vulnerable older people from the virus. I believe that much of the American media aided and abetted a propaganda campaign instrumentalized by government actors in favor of containment.

 

This could also be of some interest:


«Our government's decisions have possibly only delayed the agony»


Covid vaccination: the reasons behind the mistrust



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