Covid-19 and the new merchants of doubt

How best can scientists push back against science denialist campaigns? David Gorski and Gavin Yamey suggest some evidence based strategies

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 provided support to 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 arose out of a conference hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), and has been heavily promoted by the 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 has also received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, which was founded and is chaired by the right-wing billionaire industrialist known for promoting climate change denial and opposing regulations on business. Koch linked organisations have also opposed public health measures to curb the spread of covid-19. 

Prominent AIER fellows have run afoul of social media for opposing such measures. For example, Naomi Wolf, the AIER’s Senior Visiting Fellow, was recently suspended from Twitter (where she had over 140,000 followers) after using her platform to spread anti-vaccine misinformation. For example, she tweeted that vaccines were a “software platform that can receive uploads”; she wrote that vaccines “let you travel back in time”; she argued that the urine and feces of vaccinated people should be separated from society; and she compared Anthony Fauci to Satan.

AIER contributor Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and President Trump’s former coronavirus czar, had also previously violated Twitter’s public safety rules, leading to the removal of one of his tweets for promoting misinformation about masks. His tweet stated “‘Masks work? NO!’” 

The GBD influenced covid-19 policy on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the Sunday Times, in September 2020, Gupta, along with Oxford University’s Carl Heneghan and Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, advised UK prime minister Boris Johnson not to institute a national “circuit breaker” lockdown to forestall a predicted second wave, persuading him to delay. Details of this meeting, and of the opposition to a circuit breaker by Gupta and Heneghan, were described by Dominic Cummings in his testimony to members of parliament on 26 May 2021. However, Gupta and Heneghan dispute Cummings’s recollection of the meeting and have provided written evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee detailing their version of events.They deny Cummings’ claim that they said that there was already herd immunity in the population and that there would be no second wave. Their written evidence suggests that they discussed the need for a strategy to control covid, while minimising societal disruption. Johnson’s “delay in imposing national restrictions,” argues Alan McNally, professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, “resulted in an estimated 1.3 million extra covid infections.” Gupta also kept Georg von Opel apprised of her efforts: in April 2020, after a television appearance on a Channel 4 debate called “Can Science beat the Virus?”, she wrote an email to von Opel obtained by Open Democracy under Freedom of Information legislation, “I tried to make the point even more strongly that we cannot just consider the question of lifting lockdown in the single dimension of what it will do to the pandemic, but they [Channel 4 news] have cut it down dramatically.”

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. 

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 a similar 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.

Stephan Lewandowsky at the University of Bristol has described links between climate science denialists and those questioning covid-19 public health measures. He also notes support for the GBD “among bots on social media which according to the Federation of American Scientists’ Disinformation Research Group ‘indicates the conversation is manipulated and inorganic in comparison to the scientific consensus-based conversation opposing herd immunity theories.’” 

How best can scientists push back against the AIER and GBD? There is a range of evidence-based strategies. These include:

  • “Public inoculation”–warning people about the risk of being misled and drawing attention to who is pushing the contentious information and their financial competing interests;
  • Highlighting scientific consensus; and
  • Mapping the institutional networks who are pushing controversial information and then using political and legal strategies to counter them.

For physicians, scientists, and public health officials to be effective countering efforts like the GBD, it will be absolutely critical for them to realize that they are not dealing with an orthodox scientific debate based on sound data and evidence, but a well-funded sophisticated science denialist campaign based on ideological and corporate interests.

Gavin Yamey, Professor of Global Health and Public Policy, Duke University; Director, Center for Policy Impact in Global Health, Duke Global Health Institute.

David H. Gorski, Professor of Surgery and Chief, Breast Surgery Section, Michael & Marian Ilitch Department of Surgery, Wayne State University School of Medicine, and Managing Editor, Science-Based Medicine (https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org.

Competing interests: GY has received research funding from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which support COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment. He was an unpaid member of the World Bank’s COVID-19 Vaccine Development Taskforce and an unpaid adviser to Gavi in the design of COVAX. He has written articles, including in TIME, in support of public health measures to curb COVID-19 (including masks; test, trace, isolate, and support; distancing; workplace and school safety measures; and ventilation of buildings). He was a co-author of a Lancet correspondence, “Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now” (Lancet 2020;396:E71-E72) that was the basis for the Jon Snow Memorandum. DHG has no competing financial interests. He does however, edit a weblog that has published many posts pushing back against COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation and has been critical of the GBD in particular.

Update notice: This article was updated on 15 September 2021 to add an extra paragraph break. This article was revised on 23 September 2021 to clarify that this is not the first time billionaires aligned with industry have “provided support” to proponents of herd immunity, rather than “funded” proponents of herd immunity; the GBD arose out of a conference hosted and heavily promoted by the AIER instead of being sponsored by the AIER; that the AIER received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation rather than being part of a network of organisations funded by Charles Koch; and that Scott Atlas’s association with AIER was as a contributor.