This particular topic serves as an excellent followup to my post from Monday about how the Republican Party has now gone completely over to the Dark Side and undeniably become the antivaccine party. I didn’t plan it this way. However, in a nice bit of timing, late Monday The BMJ published an op-ed by Gavin Yamey, Professor of Global Health and Public Policy, Duke University; Director, Center for Policy Impact in Global Health, Duke Global Health Institute, and a certain author who should be familiar to readers of this blog. It’s entitled Covid-19 and the new merchants of doubt, and it’s about how certain right wing think tanks and astroturf groups have done their best to cast doubt on the science behind public health interventions being employed by governments to slow the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate the damage from it. Some readers might view it as shameless self-promotion for me to write about this op-ed, but what is a personal blog for, if not for the occasional lapse into shameless self-promotion, particularly when it fits in so well with a recent post on a related topic?
AstroTurf is, of course, a brand of artificial sod frequently used instead of real grass in sports stadiums, particularly indoor stadiums, where maintaining a real grass playing field would very challenging, if not impossible. Used in the context that I’m using it in now, astroturf refers to a fake grassroots campaign designed to promote a political idea. More specifically, astroturf “refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms” or, as Campaigns & Elections magazine defines it, a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.” These are campaigns designed to appear to be “grassroots” campaigns but in reality are funded and promoted by individuals, companies, and groups that try to remain in the shadows. In fairness, it is true that there are gray areas, in which real grassroots campaigns receive funding from such interests because their aims align, but in general astroturf groups try to make it difficult for anyone to determine who a political activist organizations real sponsors are.
Then there are the think tanks, a whole ecosystem of right wing think tanks. I’ve discussed a few of them before. Arguably, the most prominent and influential of them, at least in terms of influencing COVID-19 policy goes, has to be the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which was behind the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). You remember the GBD, don’t you? Almost a year ago now, the AIER gathered three academics, Dr. Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, to write a “declaration” named after the town in which AIER is based. That declaration called for the US and the UK to end their lockdowns and promoted allowing the virus to spread among young people in order to build “natural herd immunity.” Of course, in October 2020 there were as yet no vaccines approved, either under an emergency use approval (EUA) or regular approval, which ties into the GBD’s advocacy of “focused protection” of the “vulnerable”; i.e, the elderly, those with chronic health conditions that made them susceptible to much more severe disease and even death from COVID-19.
As I characterized it at the time, the GBD was “magnified minority” and eugenics. The eugenics part is easy to explain. In essence the GBD advocated letting COVID-19 rip through the “healthy” population, and its “focused protection” was a sham. The reason is that, short of locking them away indefinitely (and even then it’s questionable) it’s impossible to protect the vulnerable from a virus when it’s widespread in the general “healthy” population, meaning that the GBD’s “focused protection” really meant, in practice, “let the old folks catch COVID-19 and die so that the young can continue about their business.” In this, the GBD was no different from antivax activist Del Bigtree’s exhortation to “catch that cold” and build “natural herd immunity,” even as he victim-shamed the obese, smokers, and others with lifestyle habits that lead to chronic disease. In addition, the GBD, as a declaration supposedly signed by thousands of scientists and doctors, the vast majority of whom had little or no relevant expertise in COVID-19, infectious disease, epidemiology, or public health, was an excellent example of “magnified minority,” in which a minority of cranks provide the appearance of a scientific basis for an ideological position, as they had done for climate science, evolution, tobacco science, and other denialist positions:
Another way of looking at statements like the GBD is as “scientific astroturf,” in which ideological players fund and promote a policy position and use such declarations as a means of making it appear that it’s a grassroots campaign of scientists arguing that science supports that position. True, the GBD was only a little different than scientific astroturf of the past, but at its heart it was the same technique from the same old playbook, with that “little difference” being that COVID-19 was a new disease and the scientific consensus regarding it hadn’t yet solidified to anywhere near the degree as consensuses behind, for example, evolution, climate science, and vaccines. Even so, in response to criticism AIER, the “think tank” that orchestrated the GBD, played another card from the right wing science denial playbook, the appeal to persecution, likening itself to abolitionists, which makes those of us supporting public health interventions—you guessed it!—advocates of “slavery.” At the time, I was grateful that AIER had restrained itself from bringing up the Holocaust or the Nuremberg Code, but, again, there were no vaccines against COVID-19 yet available at the time.
But back to the op-ed, which describes how influential the GBD has been:
On 9 April 2021, Open Democracy reported that Oxford University professor Sunetra Gupta, a critic of public health measures to curb covid-19 and a proponent of “natural herd immunity,” had “received almost £90,000 from the Georg and Emily von Opel Foundation.” The foundation was named after its founder, Georg von Opel who is the great-grandson of Adam Opel, founder of the German car manufacturer. Georg von Opel is a Conservative party donor with a net worth of $2 billion. “Gupta’s arguments against lockdowns—and in favour of ‘herd immunity,’” the report further noted, “have found favour…in the British government.”
This is not the first time billionaires aligned with industry have funded proponents of “herd immunity.” Gupta, along with Harvard University’s Martin Kulldorff and Stanford University’s Jay Bhattacharya, wrote the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), which, in essence, argues that covid-19 should be allowed to spread unchecked through the young and healthy, while keeping those at high risk safe through “focused protection,” which is never clearly defined. This declaration was sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a libertarian, climate-denialist, free market think tank that receives “a large bulk of its funding from its own investment activities, not least in fossil fuels, energy utilities, tobacco, technology and consumer goods.” The AIER’s American Investment Services Inc. runs a private fund that is valued at $284,492,000, with holdings in a wide range of fossil fuel companies (e.g. Chevron, ExxonMobil) and in the tobacco giant Philip Morris International. The AIER is also part of “a network of organizations funded by Charles Koch—a right-wing billionaire known for promoting climate change denial and opposing regulations on business” and who opposes public health measures to curb the spread of covid-19.
You might ask why such groups would oppose mitigation strategies and public health interventions against COVID-19. It might even seem counterintuitive that they would, given that the unchecked spread of the coronavirus is bad for business. Think about it, though, and reasons will become apparent. First, “lockdowns” are bad for profits, and these interests think that “lockdowns” are worse for profits than just letting the virus rip through the population. True, some industries have profited immensely from the pandemic, such as Amazon and other companies that deliver goods to homes, tech companies behind videoconferencing software, and computer companies, which saw a boom in business as so many people worked from home, but overall the effect on industry profits has been very negative. Second, these interests oppose collective action in general, particularly government-directed collective action, and public health is nothing if not collective action that requires a large component of government intervention. As I pointed out late last year, the reason antivaxxers so rapidly made common cause with antimaskers and COVID-19 deniers and contrarians is because they are all opposed to public health interventions. Add to that opposition to programs designed to support workers left unemployed by the pandemic, and you get the idea.
Contrary to the “persecution” narrative promoted by astroturf think tanks like AIER and its ilk, in which supposedly those holding its position are “canceled” and “persecuted,” GBD “luminaries” and fellow travelers are actually very influential. It’s easy to laugh at AIER fellow Naomi Wolf for her antivaccine and wacky COVID-19 conspiracy theories, but it’s harder to laugh at someone like AIER contributor Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no expertise in infectious disease or epidemiology and a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University (also known for promoting climate science denial), given that he was for a time the chief advisor to then-President Trump on the pandemic, and the advice he gave cribbed heavily from the GBD in his push for “natural herd immunity.”
Then there are the GBD signatories themselves:
In October 2020, Gupta, Kulldorff, and Bhattacharya met with two of US President Donald Trump’s senior health officials, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Scott Atlas. Atlas was at the time on leave from his fellowship at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank affiliated with Stanford University. The meeting reportedly led the administration to eagerly embrace the GBD. Nor did the GBD authors limit their efforts to national governments. For example, in March 2021 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hosted a video roundtable with Atlas, Gupta, Kulldorff, and Bhattacharya, where they expressed opposition to masks, testing and tracing, physical distancing, and mass vaccination. YouTube removed the video “because it included content that contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities regarding the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.” GBD authors, predictably, cried, “Censorship!” Bhattacharya continues to advise Governor DeSantis on Florida’s covid-19 policies, including providing legal testimony in support of DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates in public schools.
Then, in a move that surprised absolutely no one familiar with science denial movements, increasingly GBD signatories have begun to spread antivaccine disinformation. For example, a few days ago Bhattacharya was promoting a bad “dumpster dive” into the VAERS database whose incompetent analysis resulted in the suggestion that COVID-19 vaccinations were more dangerous in adolescents than the disease:
His utter cluelessness about the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting (VAERS) database aside, Bhattacharya is promoting “soft” antivaccinationism, first by claiming he’s “not antivaccine” but rather “anti-vaccine mandate”:
Predictably, his next move is to cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines and promote “natural herd immunity,” a play straight out of the antivaccine playbook, whether he realizes it or not:
And Bhattacharya even goes so far as to retweet antivax extremists:
Nice touch, there, appealing to “loving our neighbors as ourselves” in order to portray public health advocates as dogmatic and intolerant.
Then there’s Dr. Gupta, who has actually questioned the rationale for vaccinating frontline medical workers. No, I kid you not:
My response, after facepalming, was to point out that vaccines are very good at preventing those most at risk of large exposures to the coronavirus due to their jobs from ending up in the ICU or dead. This is not rocket science, after all, and it’s not a complicated concept to protect those most at risk from the virus from the worst effects of the virus. She’s also cherry picking. There is plenty of evidence that existing COVID-19 vaccines do prevent forward transmission of the virus. They’re just nowhere near 100% effective at it, even though they are very effective at preventing severe disease and death. You’d think someone who’s supposedly an infectious disease epidemiologist would understand that a vaccine doesn’t have to be 100% effective at preventing transmission to be very, very useful and that preventing severe disease and death is a highly desirable outcome, even if it turns out that immunity wanes and periodic boosters end up being required.
Then there’s Dr. Kulldorff joining the chorus touting “natural herd immunity”:
Besides noting Kulldorff’s falsehood that public health scientists don’t consider “natural immunity” in their herd immunity models (they do), let me just add: Whenever you see what I like to call an “appeal to ancient ways of knowing,” particularly coupled with a risible claim such as that ancients “understood immunology better than we do,” run. Run as fast as you can and as far as you can.
Kulldorff, along with Gupta, also downplays the usefulness of COVID-19 vaccines at every turn:
HE even parrots a favorite antivaccine and science denial trope, likening science that he doesn’t like to a “religion”:
The above statement would not have been out of place on the crankiest of crank antivaccine blogs and websites. I’ve seen variants of it many times going back two decades on sites as utterly bonkers as Mike Adams’ Natural News.
For example, let’s look at a post on Adams’ website that I saw yesterday. See if it doesn’t sound very similar to Kulldorff’s Tweet:
OnePoll asked 1,000 Americans to reveal their vaccination status along with any changes that occurred with regard to friendship over the past year and a half. It was discovered that one in seven Branch Covidians – meaning people who got jabbed because they buy into the plandemic deception – has axed at least three “unvaccinated” loved ones from their lives for refusing the injections.
Jennifer Aniston, some washed-up Hollywood nobody, told “The Morning Show” that she personally chose to end several friendships because of their unbelief in the Cult of Covidism.
Word to Dr. Kulldorff: When you sound almost exactly like Mike Adams, you might want to take a good, long look at yourself in the mirror and think very hard about what you’ve been saying and, if you truly aren’t antivaccine, not wonder about why some of us have started to wonder if you are antivaccine.
The question here, of course, is not whether any of the signatories of the GBD are antivaccine. I’d be willing to bet a decent sum of money that they don’t think that they are. The question, though, is why they are assisting an astroturf effort to spread antivaccine disinformation. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are actually antivaccine or whether they are simply useful idiots for the antivaccine movement (I favor the latter), they are lending the imprimatur of their scientific status to antiscience disinformation.
Sadly, all of this is depressingly familiar to certain others who have combatted science denial:
Jeremy Baskin at the Melbourne School of Government has noted an eerie familiarity: “‘Not again’ will be the first thought of many climate-change veterans. They will recognise in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) echoes of the dispiriting and distracting climate-science wars.” It was a very apt comparison. The GBD, AIER, and their corporate funders are using strategies straight out of the climate denial playbook. As described in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the fossil fuel industry has long used conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute to sow doubt about climate science while funding contrarian scientists who portray “inconvenient” science as “unsettled” or even corrupt, a tactic first pioneered by tobacco companies. Such interests, hostile to public health interventions and government endeavors to implement them, appear to have resurrected this strategy for the pandemic to sow doubt about (and give the appearance of grassroots support for their opposition to) public health interventions to slow the spread of covid-19. Their strategy has seen a band of scientists teaming up with conservative think-tanks and corporate interests and lending scientific authority to their efforts to downplay the severity of the pandemic and argue that evidence-based public health measures do not work.
I’ve frequently pointed out that, in the age of COVID-19, there is nothing new under the antivaccine sun. COVID-19 contrarians, minimizers, and deniers have teamed up with antivaxxers to recycle all the old antivaccine tropes about vaccines, science, disease, “natural immunity,” and “natural herd immunity.” The AIER’s GBD is no different. I should have been more general, though. There is nothing new under the science denial sun, as all the astroturf groups and think tanks providing them with “scientific” cover for astroturfing make all too depressingly clear.