Great Barrington Declaration

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.

Vaccine Passports a Terrible Idea. Variants Over-Hyped. Masks Pointless. An Interview With Professor Jay Bhattacharya

Today we’re publishing an original interview with Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. The interview was done by a staff reporter at a national newspaper group writing under a pseudonym to protect his job. Prof Bhattacharya has been a staunch lockdown sceptic from almost the very beginning and is one of the three co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration.

Here he is on vaccine passports:

Vaccine passports are a terrible idea that will diminish trust in public health and do nothing to improve the health of the population. Vaccine certificates are not needed as a public health measure. The Government had it right previously. The country should open up now that the older, vulnerable population has been vaccinated. The rest of the population is at much greater health risk from the lockdown than they are from the virus.

And here he is on mask mandates:

The evidence that mask mandates work to slow the spread of the disease is very weak. The only randomised evaluation of mask efficacy in preventing Covid infection found very small, statistically insignificant effects [Danish mask study]. And masks are deleterious to the social and educational development of children, especially young children. They are not needed to address the epidemic. In Sweden, for instance, children have been in school maskless almost the whole of the epidemic, with no child Covid deaths and teachers contracting Covid at rates that are lower than the average of other workers.

This is a great interview with one of the intellectual pillars of the sceptical movement.

Worth reading in full.

Risk of Asymptomatic Spread Minimal. Variants Over-Hyped. Masks Pointless. An Interview With Professor Jay Bhattacharya

by Oliver May

New variants are of no concern. There is no need to cancel summer holidays. Millions vaccinated, coupled with immunity from millions of prior infections means we can surf on the crest of the third wave, rather than being remotely concerned about it. In fact, the UK should open now. And vaccine passports, certificates, or whatever name they are being given, will do nothing to improve the health of the population – all headlines we have read and heard over the past week or so.

Except, we haven’t. We have heard and read the opposite. And we are instilled with fear from TV and radio adverts, complete with ‘that scary voice’ all too eager to give listeners nightmares, be it your impressionable primary-school-aged daughter, or a frail older lady now terrified into wearing a mask outside while waiting for a bus with no one within a 50-metre radius. But the reality is that the above headlines could have been written – and all based on science. Jayanta Bhattacharya is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University and one of the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, the report that called for the focused protection of the vulnerable and no lockdowns, signed by almost 14,000 medical and public health scientists, nearly 42,000 medical practitioners and close to 765,000 concerned citizens.

I interviewed him by email and he remains a staunch lockdown sceptic.

Why have the media, politicians and many scientists sought to panic the populace about SARS-CoV-2 far beyond what the evidence would warrant? The incentives include financial motives, political goals, the desire to protect professional reputations and many other factors.

The virus is seasonal and late fall/winter is its season. It is very unlikely, given that this is the case, that the virus will spread very widely during the summer months. It is also the case that a large fraction of the UK population has already been infected or vaccinated and is immune, which will greatly reduce hospitalisation and mortality from the virus in coming months.

There are tens of thousands of mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They mutate because the replication mechanisms they induce involve very little error checking. Most of the mutations either do not change the virulence of the virus, or weaken it. There are a few mutations that provide the virus with a selective advantage in infectivity and may increase its lethality very slightly, though the evidence on this latter point is not solid.

We should not be particularly concerned about the variants that have arisen to date. First, prior infection with the wild type virus and vaccination provide protection against severe outcomes arising from reinfection with the mutated virus. Second, though the mutants have taken over the few remaining cases, their rise has coincided with a sharp drop in cases and deaths, even in countries where they have come to dominate. Their selective infectivity advantage has not been enough to cause a resurgence in cases. Third, the age gradient in mortality is the same for the mutant and wild-type virus. Thus a focused protection policy is still warranted. If lockdowns could not stop the less infectious wild type virus, why would we expect them to stop the more infectious mutant virus?

According to the three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration which, other than Dr Bhattacharya, include Dr Martin Kulldorff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Dr Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, the UK Government is creating unfounded hysteria around SARS-CoV-2. Dr Bhattacharya said:

According to a meta-analysis by Dr John Ioannidis [Professor of Medicine at Stanford University] of every seroprevalence study conducted to date of publication with a supporting scientific paper (74 estimates from 61 studies and 51 different localities around the world), the median infection survival rate from COVID-19 infection is 99.77 per cent. For COVID-19 patients under 70, the meta-analysis finds an infection survival rate of 99.95 per cent.

The CDC’s [Centres for Disease Control] and Prevention] best estimate of infection fatality rate for people ages 70 plus years is 5.4 per cent, meaning seniors have a 94.6 per cent survivability rate. For children and people in their 20s/30s, it poses less risk of mortality than the flu. For people in their 60s and above, it is much more dangerous than the flu.

Even so, this hardly warrants a new Government drive urging families to carry out tests on their children twice a week in the hope of unearthing asymptomatic cases. Especially, as the vulnerable have already been vaccinated.

The scientific evidence now strongly suggests that COVID-19 infected individuals who are asymptomatic are more than an order of magnitude less likely to spread the disease to even close contacts than symptomatic COVID-19 patients. A meta-analysis of 54 studies from around the world found that within households – where none of the safeguards that restaurants are required to apply are typically applied – symptomatic patients passed on the disease to household members in 18 per cent of instances, while asymptomatic patients passed on the disease to household members in 0.7 per cent of instances. A separate, smaller meta-analysis similarly found that asymptomatic patients are much less likely to infect others than symptomatic patients.

Asymptomatic individuals are an order of magnitude less likely to infect others than symptomatic individuals, even in intimate settings such as people living in the same household where people are much less likely to follow social distancing and masking practices that they follow outside the household. Spread of the disease in less intimate settings by asymptomatic individuals – including religious services, in-person restaurant visits, gyms, and other public settings – are likely to be even less likely than in the household.

What about mask mandates?

The evidence that mask mandates work to slow the spread of the disease is very weak. The only randomised evaluation of mask efficacy in preventing Covid infection found very small, statistically insignificant effects [Danish mask study]. And masks are deleterious to the social and educational development of children, especially young children. They are not needed to address the epidemic. In Sweden, for instance, children have been in school maskless almost the whole of the epidemic, with no child Covid deaths and teachers contracting Covid at rates that are lower than the average of other workers.

In light of this, what conclusion can we draw from the fact that the UK Government wants the entire adult population to be injected against the virus, instead of just the vulnerable? And the possibility that we’ll need to produce vaccine certificates to access hospitality and sports venues or travel overseas?

Vaccine passports are a terrible idea that will diminish trust in public health and do nothing to improve the health of the population. Vaccine certificates are not needed as a public health measure. The Government had it right previously. The country should open up now that the older, vulnerable population has been vaccinated. The rest of the population is at much greater health risk from the lockdown than they are from the virus.

The author is a staff journalist at a national newspaper group. Oliver May is a pseudonym.