Great Barrington Declaration

BMJ Publishes Belated Attack on the Great Barrington Declaration, but It Doesn’t Hit the Target

The Great Barrington Declaration, which advocates a focused protection strategy for dealing with COVID-19, was published in October last year – before many countries around the world imposed their winter lockdowns.   

Recently, The BMJ Opinion – a journalistic offshoot of the well-known medical journal – published a very belated hit piece against the authors. As you might expect, it’s light on scientific arguments and heavy on tactics like ad hominem, guilt by association and appeals to authority.

The authors, David Gorski and Gavin Yamey, really don’t mince words. For example, they describe the Declaration (which has been signed by hundreds of scientists and healthcare professionals) as a “well-funded sophisticated science denialist campaign based on ideological and corporate interests”.

Not exactly a respectful way to talk about your colleagues. But it’s hardly the first time the Declaration’s critics have sunk to this level. Just last month, Jay Bhattacharya became the subject of a censorious petition which claimed that he “sows mistrust of policies designed to protect the public health”.

Gorski and Yamey begin their article by criticising the Declaration’s authors for collaborating with the American Institute for Economic Research, which they claim is a “libertarian, climate-denialist, free market think tank”.

I’m not sure why this is a ‘gotcha’. Lockdown is about as un-libertarian a policy as you could imagine, so it’s not really surprising that a libertarian think tank would oppose it. And in any case, the Declaration’s website clearly states that the document was “was written and signed at the American Institute for Economic Research”.

Martin Kulldorff has since clarified that the AIER president and board did not know about the Declaration until after it was published. But even if they had done, so what? As Kulldorff notes, universities like Duke and Stanford have received money from the Koch brothers. Should we therefore completely disregard what their academics have to say?

Gorski and Yamey’s next move is to cite social media censorship of lockdown sceptics as evidence that their arguments constitute ‘misinformation’. (Incidentally, that term – which basically means ‘information that’s missing from the mainstream narrative’ – appears no fewer than six times in the article.)  

However, this argument relies on circular logic: ‘Something was censored on social media? Therefore, it’s misinformation. How do we know? Well, misinformation is what social media companies censor.’ In reality, of course, the fact that something was censored is no indication whatsoever that it’s factually incorrect.

The authors then allege that when Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan met Boris Johnson in September of last year, they were successful in “persuading him to delay” a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, which could have forestalled the second wave of infections.

As historian Phil Magness has already noted, this argument is deficient on two counts. It’s not clear that Gupta and Heneghan did persuade the Prime Minister to shelve the ‘circuit breaker’ idea. But even if they did, there’s no reason to believe that policy would’ve prevented a large number of deaths.

Finally, Gorski and Yamey compare lockdown sceptics to ‘climate science deniers’, insofar as both groups “argue that evidence-based public health measures do not work”. They call for experts to push back against the Great Barrington Declaration by highlighting “scientific consensus”, citing the John Snow Memorandum.

Of course, the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum is just another public statement signed by scientists and health professionals. If it constitutes “scientific consensus”, then so does the Great Barrington Declaration. I’m only aware of one attempt to gauge overall expert opinion on focused protection: the survey by Daniele Fanelli.

He asked scientists who’d published at least one relevant paper, “In light of current evidence, to what extent do you support a ‘focused protection’ policy against COVID-19, like that proposed in the Great Barrington Declaration?” Of those who responded, more than 50% said “partially”, “mostly” or “fully”.  

Regardless of the exact number of experts who support focused protection, claiming there is a “scientific consensus” against it is simply false. Long before the Declaration itself was published, many scientists had proposed some version of precision shielding. In fact, this was basically the U.K.’s plan until the middle of March, 2020.

On March 5th, Chris Whitty told the Health and Social Care Committee that we are “very keen” to “minimise economic and social disruption”, and mentioned that “one of the best things we can do” is “isolate older people from the virus”.

Another prominent scientist who has argued in favour of focused protection is Sir David Spiegelhalter. In an article published on May 29th, he and George Davey Smith said that we ought to “stratify shielding according to risk” because lockdown is “seriously damaging many aspects of people’s lives”.

They noted that this would require “a shift away from the notion that we are all seriously threatened by the disease, which has led to levels of personal fear being strikingly mismatched to objective risk of death”.

Among the ad hominems, appeals to authority and repeated uses of ‘misinformation’, finding a scientific argument in Gorski and Yamey’s article is not easy. And given that the content’s almost a year out of date, I’m not sure why the authors felt the need to publish it.

Immunity to Covid Is Still Present 12 Months After Infection

Back in October of 2020, the John Snow Memorandum was published as a letter in the Lancet. Originally co-signed by 31 scientists, hundreds of others have since added their names.

Although it does not explicitly name the Great Barrington Declaration, the Memorandum is widely understood as a response to that document. It refers to “a so-called herd immunity approach”, which proponents claim “would lead to the development of infection-acquired population immunity in the low-risk population”.

However, the Memorandum states: “This is a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.” And it goes on to claim “there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection”.

According to the organisers’ website, more than 6,900 scientists, researchers and healthcare professionals have signed the Memorandum to date (including names from Oxford and Harvard). So almost 7,000 people with supposed expertise deemed it plausible that natural immunity would not provide any lasting protection against reinfection.

Incidentally, the language used in the Memorandum may be partly responsible for the Great Barrington Declaration being mischaracterised as a ‘herd immunity strategy’. As the authors have been at pains to point out, this is like describing a pilot’s plan to land a plane as a ‘gravity strategy’. (Their approach is more properly described as ‘focused protection’.)

It’s now one year on from the John Snow Memorandum. Is there any evidence for “lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection”? Yes, in fact, there is.

A recent systematic review (which has not yet been peer-reviewed) found that natural immunity confers a high degree of protection against reinfection. The researchers analysed 10 studies, and calculated a weight-average risk reduction of 90%.

But is this protection lasting? According to a new study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, immunity persists for at least 12 months in the vast majority of convalescents (those who’ve previously been infected).

Chinese researchers carried out a “systematic antigen-specific immune evaluation” on 74 individuals, 12 months after their original infection. They found that “humoral immunity is present within ~95% of convalescents and T-cell memory against at least one viral antigen is measurable among ~90% of subjects at 12m post-infection”.

Note: ‘humoral immunity’ refers to the type of immune response mediated by antibodies, whereas ‘cellular immunity’ refers to the type mediated by T-cells (as well as phagocytes and cytokines).

Although the researchers also had data from 28 healthy controls (individuals who’d never been infected), their sample was not large enough to estimate the protective effect of natural immunity on reinfection. Though it’s worth noting that not a single participant reported reinfection.

A study published last year analysed data on ten healthy males over a period of three decades, to see how often reinfections with seasonal coronaviruses occurred. They found that the median reinfection occurred after 30 months, suggesting that protective immunity lasts for years, not decades.

If SARS-CoV-2 is anything like the four other coronaviruses, we can expect immunity against reinfection to wane on a similar timescale. However, this seems more than sufficient to achieve focused protection, in the sense of shielding the vulnerable through the initial epidemic, and allowing time for treatments and vaccines to be developed.  

Lockdown proponents might respond that lockdown need only have lasted as long as it took to develop the vaccines. But this argument completely ignores the costs side of the ledger. Focused protection could have worked, if only we’d bothered to try it.

Stop Press: The Brownstone Institute has compiled a list of 29 studies showing that natural immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is “robust, long-lasting, and broadly effective”.

Why Did So Few Economists Speak Out Against Lockdown?

In a previous post, I mentioned Paul Ormerod’s argument that governments have relied too heavily on epidemiologists, and not enough on economists, when crafting their responses to COVID-19. (For example, they’ve consistently failed to subject their own policies to rigorous cost-benefit analysis.)

However, survey evidence indicates that many economists were just as strongly pro-lockdown as the doctors, epidemiologists and public health scientists who’ve been advising governments.

In April of 2020, members of the ‘IGM economic experts panel’ (a sample of 44 academic economists based in the U.S.) were asked whether a “comprehensive policy response will involve tolerating a very large contraction in economic activity until the spread of infections has dropped significantly”. Of those who answered, zero per cent disagreed.

In addition, zero per cent of the panel disagreed that “abandoning severe lockdowns at a time when the likelihood of a resurgence in infections remains high will lead to greater total economic damage than sustaining the lockdowns to eliminate the resurgence risk”.

In a survey of 47 Australian economists from May of 2020, only 19% disagreed that “the benefits to Australian society of maintaining social distancing measures sufficient to keep R less than 1 for COVID-19 are likely to exceed the costs”.

Why did so many economists back the lockdowns? Mikko Packalen and Jay Bhattacharya (of Great Barrington Declaration fame) seek to answer this question in a recent essay for Collateral Global.

They begin by taking the economics profession to task for its unqualified support of lockdowns. Of course, some economists did question the lockdowns, but the authors’ sense is that most did not. At the very least, few chose to air their reservations publicly.

Packalen and Bhattacharya are particularly exercised, they tell us, that so few economists raised the alarm about the costs of lockdown. After all, economists are meant to recognise that there’s ‘no such thing as a free lunch’.

As to why so few economists spoke out, the authors suggest a number of reasons. First, economists have a reputation for being somewhat miserly, and they were concerned about playing to type. This made them reluctant, during the early months of the pandemic, to raise the small matter of how much this was all going to cost.

Second, economists – like almost all professionals – are members of the ‘laptop class’ (i.e., people who sit around on their laptops all day). Lockdown didn’t affect their lives nearly as much as it affected those of small business owners, or workers who couldn’t access a furlough scheme.

Third, as economics has become more technical and more specialised, it has acquired a distinctly technocratic streak. Despite the subject’s roots in liberal political economy, the authors note, “there is now a widespread belief that almost any societal problem has a technocratic, top-down solution”.

Fourth, academic economics has formed a rather cosy relationship with big business, particularly the investment banks of Wall Street and the giant tech firms of Silicon Valley. It’s less surprising, therefore, that “the dismal science has had very little to say about how lockdowns have favoured big business”.

Packalen and Bhattacharya’s essay contains many other interesting observations, and is worth reading in full.

Great Barrington Author Gets Mobbed by His Stanford Colleagues

Jay Bhattacharya is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, and one of the three co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, which outlines a focused protection strategy for dealing with COVID-19.

Although many academics disagree with Bhattacharya about the merits of focused protection, you’d hope they would treat him with respect when expressing their disagreement. Unfortunately, in the era of wokeness and safetyism on campus, this is too much to ask for.

Professor Bhattacharya recently became the subject of a censorious petition circulated by his own colleagues at Stanford.

Although the petition does not name him explicitly, it refers to a “Stanford faculty member” who – gasp – “defends the Governor of Florida’s rejection of mask mandates”. It then directly quotes Bhattacharya as saying “there is no high-quality evidence to support the assertion that masks stop the disease from spreading”.

Note how reasonable this supposedly controversial statement is. Bhattacharya didn’t say there is “no evidence”. He said there is “no high-quality evidence”, which strikes me as entirely defensible. Although there has been one RCT of community masking – the Bangladesh mask study – its results were inconclusive at best.

What’s more, Bhattacharya’s statement concerned the effect of children wearing masks, and there haven’t been any RCTs on that. (The Bangladesh mask study – which had not been published at the time his comments were made – only monitored adults.)

According to the petitioners, Bhattacharya “sows mistrust of policies designed to protect the public health and puts young children, their families and their teachers at risk”. Quite a charge to level at one of your own colleagues. And this wasn’t an off-hand remark in a heated conversation; it was written in a letter to the University President.

The petitioners “recognise the right of every member of the scientific community to express their views and opinions”. But “a time comes,” they write, “when skepticism can no longer be seen as anything other than willful disregard of countervailing facts”.

Perhaps the petitioners are aware of another large-scale RCT of community masking, which does show an unambiguous benefit? If so, it was not mentioned in their missive.

They go on to say: “Encouraging others to deviate from nationally-advocated policy during a pandemic jeopardises us all.” Given that the authorities initially advised against mask-wearing, this must mean the first scientists who questioned that advice were also “jeopardising us all”.

Maybe Bhattacharya’s critics can pen a belated letter denouncing those scientists who “encouraged others to deviate from” the U.S. Surgeon General’s advice in February of 2020. He urged people to “STOP BUYING MASKS” because they are “NOT effective” at preventing the general public from catching coronavirus.

The petitioners conclude their missive by asking the University President to “forcefully declare your faith in the measures you are relying upon to bring us back to campus”. And if that doesn’t sound like a religious exhortation, I don’t know what does.

Incidentally, the petition against Bhattacharya isn’t the first example of Stanford academics mobbing one of their own colleagues for questioning the received wisdom on Covid policy.

Last October, 98 faculty members signed a petition criticising Dr Scott Atlas, whom they accused of spreading “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science”. As a matter of fact, a recent study of academic cancel culture found that Stanford had experienced more incidents than any other U.S. university.

Based on this evidence, it looks like Stanford scholars need to spend more time doing teaching and research, and less time denouncing their colleagues.

This post has been updated.

Why is Davos Man So Keen on Lockdowns?

In my column in this week’s Spectator I have tried to answer the question of why the global elite became such enthusiastic supporters of the heavy-handed, statist approach to managing the coronavirus crisis — stay-at home orders, business closures, face masks — and passionate opponents of less draconian alternatives, such as those set out by the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration. First, I summarise the explanation that my friend James Delingpole favours:

It’s because these 21st-century robber barons are making money out of the pandemic. According to Robert Watts, who compiles the Sunday Times Rich List, more people have become billionaires in the past year than at any other time in Britain’s history. The combined fortune of these Masters of the Universe has grown by more than a fifth, and the rest of the 1 per cent haven’t done too badly either, thanks to massive government expenditure. Across the developed world, central banks have pumped money into the economy, boosting asset prices and further enriching the plutocratic elite. What’s not to like?

But while I think that’s a factor, I don’t think it’s the whole of the story. I think it’s also because being in favour of non-pharmaceutical interventions is a high-status indicator, a way of advertising that you’re in the same club as tech titans like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and eminent public health scientists like Anthony Fauci and Neil Ferguson.

That’s a term coined by a doctoral student at Cambridge called Robert Henderson. In an article for the New York Post, he defines ‘luxury beliefs’ as “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class”. The example he gives is the belief, prevalent in the 1960s, that monogamy is outdated and marriage a source of patriarchal oppression. That doesn’t cost the rich anything because most of them are brought up in bourgeois two-parent households and enter into stable, monogamous marriages. But as the credo of sexual liberation trickled down to the working class it has wreaked havoc, leading to illegitimacy, crime and poverty.

This is where Delingpole goes wrong, I think. The reason Davos Man has outsourced his opinions on the pandemic to the World Health Organisation is not because the policies recommended by Tedros Adhanom enrich him. Rather, it’s because they cost him nothing. He can just as easily work in the shepherd’s hut at the bottom of his garden as he can from his corner office. His children are provided with a full timetable of lessons via Zoom, courtesy of their private school, and if he feels like a holiday abroad he can charter a private jet. Becoming a cheerleader for lockdowns is a way of signalling that he is among the tiny elite of successful people for whom there is zero cost associated with them.

Worth reading in full.

Website Launched to Document the Harms of Lockdown

Today marks the official launch of the website Collateral Global, which aims to “to build an evidence-based understanding of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic response measures to inform future policies and strategies for pandemic preparedness”.

The editorial board contains many faces that will be familiar to Lockdown Sceptics readers, including Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta and Martin Kulldorff (the authors of The Great Barrington Declaration), as well as Oxford’s Carl Heneghan and the LSE’s Paul Dolan.

Through a series of themed editions, the website promises “original content highlighting everything from expert opinion and academic summaries to human stories and video diaries”. The theme of the first edition is introductory. It includes an editor’s note from Jay Bhattacharya, an essay on the ethics of lockdown by Oxford’s Alberto Giubilini, and several other contributions.

Bhattacharya doesn’t pull any punches in his editorial, which begins:

In 1915, chemistry lost its innocence when mustard gas poisoned British troops in Ypres, Belgium. Physics lost its innocence in 1945 amongst the radioactive rubble of Hiroshima, Japan. Public health lost its innocence in March 2020 when the world adopted lockdowns as a primary tool to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though he acknowledges, “As with war, not everything that came out of lockdown was bad and our reporting will reflect that truth.” According to the FAQs, the website “has no political or institutional affiliations” – its only allegiance is to “the enduring principles of scientific inquiry”.

Collateral Global is set to provide a range of interesting content, so do check it out.

Try As They Might, Lockdown Proponents Can’t Escape the Blame for the Biggest Public Health Fiasco in History

Politicians, journalists and academics are wrong to blame the public for the failure of lockdowns since “the population [has never] sacrificed so much to comply with public health mandates”, say two of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). Writing in the Telegraph, Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya – professors of medicine at Harvard and Stanford respectively – say that lockdown proponents need to acknowledge that eschewing focused protection and quarantining entire populations indiscriminately has led to the “biggest public health fiasco in history”.

A year ago, there was no evidence that lockdowns would protect older high-risk people from Covid. Now there is evidence. They did not.

With so many Covid deaths, it is obvious that lockdown strategies failed to protect the old. Holding the naïve belief that shutting down society would protect everyone, governments and scientists rejected basic focused protection measures for the elderly. While anyone can get infected, there is more than a thousand-fold difference in the risk of death between the old and the young. The failure to exploit this fact about the virus led to the biggest public health fiasco in history.

Lockdowns have, nevertheless, generated enormous collateral damage across all ages. Depriving children of in-person teaching has hurt not only their education but also their physical and mental health. Other public health consequences include missed cancer screenings and treatments and worse cardiovascular disease outcomes. Much of this damage will unfold over time and is something we must live with – and die with – for many years to come.

The blame game for this fiasco is now in full swing. Some scientists, politicians, and journalists are complaining that people did not comply with the rules sufficiently. But blaming the public is disingenuous. Never in human history has the population sacrificed so much to comply with public health mandates.

The professors are very critical of lockdown zealots like Neil O’Brien MP who have attempted to slur respected scientists – such as Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta (the third author of the GBD) – for not toeing the line on lockdown. This, they say, has stifled the public debate on the most effective way to deal with Covid.

A few academics have jumped on the bandwagon. Dr Depti Gurdasani at Queen Mary University, for example, accused Dr Gupta of pseudoscience, suggesting that she should be deplatformed and Oxford University should act against her. Unfortunately, such behaviour intimidates other academics into silence, undermining scientific debate.

Last spring, the pandemic was waning due to a combination of immunity and seasonality, and many lockdowners claimed that lockdowns had succeeded. Still, it was obvious to any competent infectious disease epidemiologist that it would be back, and in June, Dr Gupta said she expected a resurgence of Covid in the winter months. This didn’t prevent journalists and politicians from falsely claiming that she thought the pandemic was all over.

The fact is that with a lower herd immunity threshold in the summer than in the winter, immunity can drive a pandemic on its way out during the spring but then resurge next autumn, and that is what happened. A year into the pandemic, one would think that politicians and journalists writing about Covid would have bothered to acquire some basic knowledge of infectious disease epidemiology.

Their article is very much worth reading in full.

SAGE Modelling From May Last Year Said Approach Recommended in Great Barrington Declaration Was Least Bad Alternative to Lockdown

We’re publishing an original piece today by Lockdown Sceptics regular Glen Bishop, a second year maths student at Nottingham University. Glen has read a paper released by the Warwick modelling team that is part of SAGE’s SPI-M group last May and uncovered some interesting facts. Not the least of these is that when the team modelled what the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration refer to as “Focused Protection”, i.e. protecting the elderly and allowing those who aren’t vulnerable to the disease to go about their lives taking sensible precautions, as they would during a normal flu season, the projected loss of life between March 2020 and May 2021 was 138,000, only 11,000 more than the 127,000 that have supposedly died from Covid already, with the Government embracing the suppression strategy endorsed by SPI-M. The modelling team also acknowledges that of all the alternatives to an indiscriminate lockdown, shielding those aged 60 and over would have resulted in the least loss of life as well as the least socio-economic disruption. Here’s the key paragraph from the Warwick paper:

A completely uncontrolled outbreak is predicted to lead to around 200,000 deaths, approximately 2 million QALY losses but no lockdown impacts. If the current controls are maintained until the end of 2020, then we predict 39,000 deaths this year [2020], but a further 159,000 if controls were then completely removed. Regional switching and age-dependent strategies provide alternative exit strategies in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions. Of these, the age-dependent shielding of those age 60 or over generates the lowest mortality and also the lowest lockdown scale, thereby minimising socio-economic disruption. However, it is unclear if a protracted lockdown of this age-group would be practical, ethical or politically acceptable.

Glen’s article is worth reading in full.

What Would a Focused Protection Strategy Have Looked Like?

We’re publishing a new piece by Dr Noah Carl today, this time one looking at ‘Focused Protection’, the strategy recommended in the Great Barrington Declaration. Noah thinks it would have resulted in fewer deaths than locking everybody down. Here’s an extract:

At any point during the pandemic, deciding which measures to implement represents a trade-off between their effects on the epidemic’s trajectory and their effects on society at large. Measures that substantially reduce cases or deaths, while having only a small impact on society, are worth putting in place. By contrast, those that barely reduce cases or deaths, while having a large impact on society, are best avoided. Mounting evidence indicates that measures like stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses are of the latter kind; they have large costs and relatively small benefits. In just the past week, two new studies casting doubt on the efficacy of lockdowns have been published. Vincent Chin and colleagues analysed data from 14 European countries, and found that “lockdown had no consistent impact”. Likewise, Christopher Berry and colleagues examined shelter-in-place orders in the United States, but did “not find detectable effects of these policies on disease spread or deaths”.

However, this is not to say there aren’t any restrictions worth implementing. One measure whose efficacy is supported by a number of studies, and which makes sense intuitively, is restricting large gatherings. For example, Vincent Chin and colleagues found in one of their analyses that “the simple banning of public events was beneficial”. Nicolas Banholzer and colleagues have reported a similar finding. In an unpublished study, they compared the impact of different non-pharmaceutical interventions, and found that “event bans were most effective… whereas stay-at-home orders and work bans were least effective”. Another measure that makes a great deal of sense is telling symptomatic individuals to self-isolate at home.

Worth reading in full.

We Cannot Afford to Censor Lockdown Sceptics – Professor Martin Kulldorff

We’re publishing an interview today with Martin Kulldorff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the three original signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration. Among other things, he warns of the dangers of censoring dissenting voices during a pandemic, following his own run-in with Twitter a couple of weeks ago.

The media has been very reluctant to report reliable scientific and public health information about the pandemic. Instead they have broadcast unverified information such as the model predictions from Imperial College, they have spread unwarranted fear that undermine people’s trust in public health and they have promoted naïve and inefficient counter measures such as lockdowns, masks and contact tracing.

While I wished that neither SAGE nor anyone else would argue against long-standing principles of public health, the media should not censor such information. During a pandemic, it is more important than ever that media can report freely. There are two major reasons for this: (i) While similar to existing coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus that we are constantly learning more about and because of that, it takes time to reach scientific conclusions. With censorship it takes longer and we cannot afford that during a pandemic. (ii) In order to maintain trust in public health, it is important that any thoughts and ideas about the pandemic can be voiced, debated and either confirmed or debunked.

This is a great interview done by the same journalist who interviewed Jay Bhattacharya for Lockdown Sceptics last week.

Worth reading in full.