Dr. Jay Bhattacharya Speaks Out Against Stanford University Bullying And Interference With Inconvenient COVID Research
The time has come for an honest evaluation of COVID policy failures to prevent deaths when the next pandemic hits.
In a lengthy deep-dive into COVID science and research politics, Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya disclosed attempts by university administrators to derail research in the early months of the pandemic that sought to uncover how deadly the virus was and how many people had been infected. It’s a sordid tale of academic narcissism and commercial interests driving research at one of the world’s most esteemed universities, but it’s also a tale I’m quite familiar with.
A decade back, I led a high profile Senate investigation into corruption and conflicts of interest in medicine and uncovered a particularly awful example at Stanford. The chair of the department of psychiatry had received federal funds to test a company’s product in people to stop depression. He also happened to own $6 million worth of stock in that same company, and Stanford had allowed this testing on people to proceed.
At the time, I remember having drinks one night with a reporter at the New York Times who was covering the pharma industry and telling him, “It’s like Nuremberg Code violation stuff.”
When the Wall Street Journal reported on what I had found, Stanford’s general counsel decided to get in a fight with me and disrupt our Senate investigation. She first attacked Dr. Marcia Angell for writing an article in The New York Review of Books (NYRB) that detailed the investigation I was running, sending in a heated letter and demanding corrections. She also withheld pertinent information that the Senate Committee demanded Stanford disclose for my investigation (The Ugly Underbelly of Medical Research).
Stanford’s lawyer showed such blatant disrespect for the law and medical ethics that I was finally forced to call her on the phone and warn that her that this behavior could lead to legal sanctions, including a referral to the Department of Justice. “Do you enjoy the privilege of being a practicing attorney in the great state of California?” I asked her, sending a less than subtle threat over the phone.
So I’m quite familiar with ethics problems at Stanford.
Still, the story Bhattacharya told here at The DisInformation Chronicle is rather eye opening. Stanford tried to derail his COVID research because they were worried the results might not please those who “follow the science.” Based on my oberservations, it appears that some people inside Stanford also tried to take Bhattacharya down with leaks to Buzzfeed’s Stephanie M. Lee, whose reports on Stanford read like a case study in how to not do journalism. Lee ginned up a fake conflicts of interest scandal and then quoted an expert in her story, without disclosing her own source’s very obvious financial conflicts of interest.
It’s an embarrassing, terrible attempt at journalism.
Jay Bhattacharya is a professor of health policy in the School of Medicine at Stanford—a university he first came to in 1986 as an undergraduate. He then completed both a medical degree and a PhD in economics at this same institution. Except for a three-year stint as an economist at the RAND Corporation in the late 1990s, Bhattacharya has spent his entire adult life at Stanford researching infectious disease policy and topics in health economics and health policy. He is also one of three professors suing the United States government for censoring debate around COVID policy.
From his home in Los Altos, five miles south of Stanford’s campus, Bhattacharya told me that public health officials have to reckon with the mistakes they made during the pandemic and that changes must be made to ensure that experts can express their opinions without fear that they will have their reputations destroyed.
“I have no doubt in my mind that there's going to be an honest evaluation of the pandemic response,” he said. “That history will be written. If not by this generation, then by the kids harmed by the policies that we put in place.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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THACKER: You ran the first prominent study to try and figure out how deadly this virus was and how widespread. We’re gonna’ get to what Stanford did to you for doing that research, but I want to start from the very beginning in January 2020. What was going on inside your head when this pandemic starts?
BHATTACHARYA: I was thinking like an epidemiologist and as a health policy person. I was thinking about the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Back then there was a there was an estimate put out by the World Health Organization saying that the swine flu was going to kill—I forget, like three or four or 5% of people that it infects. And that number turned out to be wildly exaggerated.
THACKER: What does it mean for a virus to kill 3 – 5% of people. Give me an example. Most people are familiar with the flu. About what percent of people, who get the flu, die from the flu every year?
BHATTACHARYA: It's in the range of 0.1%—so one in a thousand. So 5% is like 50 times that number. There are more deadly diseases. I think Ebola is like 30%.
But still, a pathogen that kills three or 5% of people, that's really bad.
THACKER: Back when the pandemic started, and some experts believed the death rate might be 5%, a lot of paranoid stuff was happening. Physicians where I live here in Spain were not going home. They were going to hotels after duty, to protect their family. They would strip down in the hallway outside their room, bag up their clothes, then go and take an immediate shower. Like they were going through a decontamination procedure.
People were scared.
BHATTACHARYA: I got emails from wives and husbands of nurses and doctors asking me if it was okay to hug their spouses after they came home from the hospital. When you say 5% are going to die, that means 1 in 20.
Especially when you've lived your entire life in the West, an infectious disease is something that happens to other people. It's not something that we were used to thinking about or dealing with.
THACKER: So as this pandemic starts, you’re thinking about the swine flu outbreak when the World Health Organization's initial estimate was wildly off.
BHATTACHARYA: The WHO’s initial estimate was really high because it was based on the percentage of people who saw a doctor and then died. But when they later did seroprevalence studies to test who actually had antibodies, it turned out that hundreds had been infected for every person who saw a doctor. They never got sick enough to show up.
Once you know the true number of people infected, you find that it wasn’t 1 out of 33 dying. Instead, the death rate was something like one out of 10,000.
THACKER: So what did they do different in this later study to figure out how many people were actually infected?
BHATTACHARYA: It's called a seroprevalence study. You find some representative sample of people and you go and get blood from them, and then test for antibodies that are specific to that virus or pathogen. When they realized how many people had been infected, they figured out that many of them had never been to a doctor to be counted by the healthcare system as sick.
THACKER: So the initial estimate of who got sick was biased, because it only counted people who went to the doctor.
BHATTACHARYA: Same thing happened with COVID. I got COVID twice and I didn't go to the doctor either time. I think that’s the experience of many, many people for these kinds of diseases.
THACKER: I was also never counted as sick from COVID, because I didn't go to the doctor either. I just isolated.
Knowing the number of people who got sick is important to calculate what’s called the IFR or infection fatality rate. How many got infected and then died. And you can’t do that if people get infected but are never counted, because they don’t need to see a doctor and just stay home.
So this happened with swine flu and you were wondering if this was happening with COVID. How do you test this hypothesis?
BHATTACHARYA: Well, the world’s premiere epidemiology organization, the CDC, ought to be ought to have been doing this. So I co-wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for a study like this: “Is the Coronavirus as Deadly as They Say?”
I was like, “Okay. I've done my part. The CDC will take it from here.”
THACKER: You made the case for the study. Done.
BHATTACHARYA: First, the CDC didn't run such a study for months and months, but also I started getting offers to run a study. Dan Eichner has a contract to run steroid testing for Major League Baseball. He had ordered a whole bunch of test kits to measure antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID.
THACKER: Do you mean measure how much antibodies you had, or whether you had antibodies or not?
BHATTACHARYA: The kit just tells you if you are positive for antibodies or not. He ordered them from a Chinese company that had made them very early. He said, “Look, I was going to use them for Major League Baseball, but it's better to use them for science.” And he gave them to us.
THACKER: A lot of companies were trying to get COVID products approved, and a product coming out of China does not inspire confidence.
BHATTACHARYA: FDA had basically approved this kit for research purposes, so they were legal. Some months after we finished our research, FDA approved the kits for emergency use authorization or EUA.
THACKER: But everything about this brand new product was based on the claims of the manufacturer. In case you don't know, I've run quite a few investigations about biomedicine, and it is not the most honest area of research.
BHATTACHARYA: I share your skepticism and cynicism around that.
But there is a very important piece of piece of math for studies like this. If you have a disease like COVID, where maybe 5% of the population have had it, that means that most people are negative. If you have a test kit that is bad and produces a lot of false positives, you'd conclude that the disease is everywhere
BHATTACHARYA: So the key number that matters for a test kit in this setting is the false positive rate.
THACKER: That’s what you need to be accurate to get good study results.
BHATTACHARYA: You also check the false negative, which is when the kit says someone has antibodies but they don’t really. The company tested these kits on vials of blood that had been collected before COVID started spreading. So there's no way that that antibodies for COVID are there.
They tested this on hundreds of samples and found a 0.5% false positive rate for the test kit.
THACKER: That becomes your baseline for measuring the test kit’s accuracy. Did you send some kits to a private lab to confirm the accuracy?
BHATTACHARYA: As soon as we had access to these test kits, we had started the study within a few weeks. So I asked colleagues at Stanford to test this kit for us to confirm the accuracy. One of our colleagues came back with estimates that were very similar to the manufacturer’s.
We wanted other labs to also check for us, but we had an independent confirmation, so we started the study.
BHATTACHARYA: We ran this study in early April 2020 and it was amazing. We had like thousands—a crazy number of people volunteering to help. People would drive up, stick their finger out the window, do a finger prick of blood, then drive off without anyone breathing on each other. It felt like the Stanford community came together to make the study happen.
Normally a study like this would take a year to organize. In fact, a Stanford professor, who is now the chair medicine, got a $13 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation to run a similar study. She promised to have results by December 2020 for $13 million and I still haven’t seen her results. We ran the study for around $100,000, with a lot of small donations from regular people.
THACKER: How did you run a study during a lockdown?
BHATTACHARYA: We thought about having people sit outside of grocery stores, because those were open, and ask people to give blood. We decided against that because that would involve face to face interactions. We went with a Facebook sampling scheme and the company offered us a way to targets ads at people living in Santa Clara County.
The problem is less you're less likely to use Facebook if you live in a poorer part of the county. But luckily, Facebook told us the zip code to correct for this. I think it worked out pretty well, actually.
THACKER: After you run your test, what do your results show?
BHATTACHARYA: It was a blockbuster. Up to that point, I think there were a thousand people who had been diagnosed in Santa Clara County with COVID. Our results implied there were about 40,000 or 50,000 people who already had antibodies.
THACKER: So 40 times the number of people had already been infected than what public health experts suspected.
BHATTACHARYA: Yeah. And because so many people had been infected that meant the death rate was lower. Instead of the death rate being three, four or 5%. It turned out to be two out of 1000, 0.2% as announced in the Santa Clara study.
It was a little bit higher in a later study we did in L.A. County.
THACKER: These two numbers inform policy. You need to know how many people are infected in the population, and how many die when they get infected.
We’re in April 2020, and you have these two numbers to help decide how people can deal with this virus. So then what?
BHATTACHARYA: The implications are enormous. First, scaring people by saying this is a disease with a 3% mortality rate is not right. That's not what scientific evidence is showing. And just like all the studies since, we found this enormous age gradient for risk. If you were over 80, the mortality risk is three, four or 5%, and it's a really deadly disease.
THACKER: So it’s only a 5% mortality risk for the oldest people?
BHATTACHARYA: Exactly. For children it was really, really low.
THACKER: But one thing you showed is that this thing was spreading faster than we thought. Lockdowns could potentially work if this thing was not spreading fastt
BHATTACHARYA: Yeah. You could have localized lockdowns, as have been used in the past.
I'm not against any restrictions at all. But you just have to understand and respond to the features of the virus.
THACKER: There was a huge amount of money spent on test and trace, especially in the UK. It was in the billions of British pounds. If this virus is spreading that quickly and efficiently doesn't that mean test and trace doesn't work? How do you do test and trace when something is spreading so quickly?
BHATTACHARYA: It's a total waste of money. I wrote a piece about this in 2020, saying that test and trace is a worthless thing for this disease. It can work with HIV, because it’s pretty memorable when you have sex with someone.
THACKER: For the vast majority of people, yes.
BHATTACHARYA: But you don't know everyone who breathes next to you. And when the disease is spreading in big waves. You're guaranteed to overwhelm whatever test and trace infrastructure you have, no matter how many billions you spend. In L.A. County, for instance, it took weeks for the test and trace people to get back to you, which is already too late.
That was the folly of our response, right? You're saying I'm going to stop the disease from spreading. I'm going to flatten the curve, forever. And then that's the only way to protect vulnerable people. Why not just directly protect vulnerable people?
If that had been the way we thought about this, there was no way that Andrew Cuomo would have sent COVID infected patients back to nursing homes. The reason why that happened was because the goal was flattening the curve and protecting hospital systems.
THACKER: When your results come out, how did Stanford respond?
BHATTACHARYA: Oh, it was terrible. I should actually backtrack just a bit.
You have to get human subjects approval to run any study to make sure that researchers behave in ethical ways. They gave us protocols to follow and some good, very good advice. But what doesn't normally happen is that you get the administration or other professors interfering in your study. Coming to you and saying, “You have to do this another way.”
Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened at Stanford.
They forced us to change the protocol. And we had to go back to the human subjects approval board to get a revised protocol approved. There was a group at Stanford that was developing their own test kit that they wanted to use for commercial purposes. Well, we're not in the business of doing anything commercial. But they were very convinced the test kit we were using was crap, while the test kit that they were developing was a good.
They didn't have any evidence for this at the time, but they convinced the Stanford administration that what we were doing was a danger to patients if we informed them of their results.
THACKER: They're alleging your test kit is faulty and that you’re going to misinform patients about their antibody status. But they also had a financial interest in this opinion.
BHATTACHARYA: There's also reputation at stake and all sorts of egos. These are these are like world class professors and they think that their work is better.
THACKER: When I went ran investigations in the United States Senate, I looked at a chairman in Stanford’s medical school and he had to step down. That man had an enormous ego and I had to yell at the lawyer at Stanford for the nonsense and dishonest statements they were putting out to defend him. I'm well aware of the egos at Stanford University.
BHATTACHARYA: I was naive. I guess I should've just told them to go away because they're violating my academic freedom. But these are my colleagues, and some of them ended up going public by going to BuzzFeed News.
They also went to the school administration, and the administration organized what I call the Star Chamber—just had an ad hoc group of people, some with conflicts of interest. One of them wanted to run their own competing study. Another one wanted to have a competing test kit. And they're telling us what to do with our study.
It's a direct violation of academic freedom.
THACKER: There's fights that happens in departments all the time. Out of control egos are the norm in universities. But if you were wrong, why didn’t they just run their own study that would be better than yours? Just do better research to show you were wrong?
BHATTACHARYA: I don't know. Motivating them were two things. One, they were worried if we run some study, and it’s a bad study, and the world hates Stanford—Stanford gets a bad reputation.
Well, why hire me as a full professor, if I can’t go do my studies?
THACKER: The whole point of science is to ask the questions. If the answers are preordained, then it’s not very interesting science. Why do it?
BHATTACHARYA: Exactly. They could have written a comment about our study—say what they thought was wrong—and that's all completely legitimate. These guys went behind our backs to the administration, like running to the teacher. It was an underhanded way to destroy our reputations and the public perception of the study, instead of following the normal scientific process.
THACKER: Did the people trying to develop the competing test kit ever get it approved.
BHATTACHARYA: My understanding is that it could be used to test for people who go to a Stanford health clinic, but it was never commercialized.
In contrast, the kit we used got FDA authorization.
THACKER: You actually had three studies: the one in Santa Clara study, one in L.A. County, and then one for Major League Baseball.
BHATTACHARYA: We want to go nationwide but the whole controversy and abuse we faced made it too difficult. But yeah, we did three different studies, one in Santa Clara County, which we're just talking about, and the one in L.A. County, which was quite similar. And Major League Baseball conducted their own study and I advised them.
We published two of those three studies.
THACKER: For L.A. County, you partnered with a professor at USC. Did you get similar results?
BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, it was similar, although the population is a little bit different.
THACKER: Did USC have any problems with the test kits you were using? Did you get any problems like what you were getting at Stanford?
BHATTACHARYA: Nothing. There was nothing. In fact, the professor running it got an award from USC—a grant to help them run a whole bunch of other studies that used these kits. They held a press conference when the results came out. It was really interesting, the difference between the way that Stanford treated us and the way that the USC treated their professor.
THACKER: If there's a professor who is going to develop anything commercially viable inside a university, the university gets a cut. I don't know what it might be at Stanford. In my mind, of all the universities I've investigated, Stanford really loves their professors who commercially develop stuff. Stanford really loves to play fast and loose with ethics, when there's money involved.
BHATTACHARYA: It is close to Silicon Valley, and Stanford tends to be more friendly to this commercializing thing. I don’t think it’s direct, where Stanford is saying, “We want money, therefore we're going to do this.”
I think primarily it was a problem where the administration didn't respect academic freedom. They preferred one group over the other because they were closer to them. And they really cared about brand management.
They did not want Stanford to be associated with this study, because they didn't like the results. They were afraid that the results of the study were at odds with what they thought public health wanted.
THACKER: When I first ran across the stories in BuzzFeed, by this reporter Stephanie Lee, I thought one was fine but another was just bizarre. I wrote a law on conflicts of interest, have advised governments on conflicts of interest, ran an investigation about conflicts of interest at Stanford Medical School, even. But her story just waved around all these allegations…
Stephanie M. Lee never quoted a single expert on conflicts of interests. I happen to be one of these people. She just ran on for thousands and thousands of words, spinning this tale about conflicts of interest.
If it takes you 8,000 words to get to a point, you may not have a point.
BHATTACHARYA: We'd had conversations with this man named David Neeleman, who was the CEO of JetBlue, the airline company. He wanted us to run like a nationwide set of studies, and one in New York. But it never went anywhere. After we had completed the study and put out the paper, he gave $5,000 to a gift account at Stanford.
THACKER: When I was running Senate investigations into conflicts of interest in medicine, we had hundreds of meetings to figure out how to deal with this problem of financial interests in academic research. Most experts we spoke with agreed that, instead of direct money going to professors, that it go into a university pool. This is not a perfect solution, but this is what many told us should happen.
So I when I read that BuzzFeed’s big investigation uncovered $5,000 going into a university pool, I kept waiting for something else. Like maybe an interview with a conflict of interest expert explaining what this meant.
But nothing. I was like, “What is BuzzFeed doing? What is the what?” It's just all buzz.
BHATTACHARYA: Almost my entire career, my funding has come from federal organizations. Having a private donor give money to Stanford was a different process. And how is $5,000 going to change results?
THACKER: It’s not clear in that story that the money came after the study had been done.
BHATTACHARYA: Honestly, it was hard to read the story all the way through.
I called up Stanford to ask “How do I disclose this? How do I disclose the existence of this fund?”
And they said, “You can't disclose the particular people who donated to the fund, but you can disclose the existence of the fund.”
And so that's what I did. You can look at the paper.
There was no conflict of interest, at least as Stanford explained. And for the reporter to make that allegation was just a lie. It's a lie designed to undermine the results, and it was done by a reporter who should have known better.
THACKER: I also thought the story was misleading as it claims there’s a “whistleblower” which is a term that gets thrown around all the time, just like “conflict of interest.” I’ve worked with a lot of whistleblowers, while working for the United States Senator who wrote many of our whistleblower laws.
Who was this whistleblower?
BHATTACHARYA: There was no whistleblower.
THACKER: So this was a Buzzfeed term of art?
BHATTACHARYA: I don't know. She may have made it up. She also featured a professor who wanted to make his own COVID test kit, complaining about the accuracy of our test kit.
THACKER: There's no disclosure in BuzzFeed that he had a competing test kit. It’s just wild. In the story where reporter Stephanie M. Lee claims you have a conflict of interest, there's no disclosure that one of her sources has a conflict of interest.
Be you, BuzzFeed.
BHATTACHARYA: I don't know. The reporter sent an email to the wife one of the study authors fishing around for dirt. This woman has a different last name from her husband, so BuzzFeed didn’t realize the relationship. It’s like an ambulance chasing lawyer.
Stanford actually conducted a fact finding after this BuzzFeed article came out. I actually hired lawyers for this. One of the first things we asked was “ What whistleblower? Who's the whistleblower?”
And they told us, “There are no whistleblowers.”
THACKER: So she was just throwing up words to gin up clicks. And what does the fact finding find?
BHATTACHARYA: After they put out a press release announcing they were starting this fact finding thing, they later sent us a letter of what they found. They find that there was no conflict of interest; that we're faculty in good standing; and that they continue to support us.
And they told us we are not allowed to release this letter.
THACKER: Maybe I'll approach Stanford and ask them if they can release the letter.
BHATTACHARYA: I would be happy to release the letter, but not everyone involved wants it public.
THACKER: This is just like what the FBI does. They start an investigation with a raid on someone’s house or business. It’s on the front page of the local paper. Any idiot would ask, “Gee, how did the reporters know to show up with a photographer?”
Well, that’s because someone at the FBI “leaked” to the reporter about the raid.
If the FBI finds nothing wrong, there’s no press release announcing that. So the announcement of an investigation just hangs over someone forever.
BHATTACHARYA: That's exactly what happened.
THACKER: Did Stanford even bother to update their press release announcing the fact finding?
BHATTACHARYA: No update.
THACKER: Did Stanford even give you a tweet? I’m not even going to ask if Stephanie M. Lee did a follow up story. That answer is obvious.
BHATTACHARYA: No tweets. I got an email. I got a letter which basically says we did nothing wrong. But also a condition that I'm not allowed to release the letter.
This was a low period in my life. I was getting death threats, racist attacks, because the press was attacking me. BuzzFeed also went after my wife.
THACKER: She's not Taylor Lorenz. Stephanie M. Lee didn't contact one of your teenage kids.
So what is this all about now? Do you think the pandemic is over? There's still people—the last holdouts like Yale’s Gregg Gonsalves—who are never going to believe this pandemic is done.
I think we have to look back at what happened and try to correct errors so that we can deal with the next pandemic that’s coming. I don’t necessarily fault the government or officials for getting things wrong, because responding to a pandemic is very difficult. Getting the science right is just the first step, the harder one is knowing what to do with that science to protect people at the public level.
So I don't mind that they got things wrong. My concern about the way our government handled this is that they never admitted when they were wrong, and they've never tried to correct the record.
There’s no attempt to learn from past mistakes. So I feel like, I feel like we've learned nothing. It’s like we’re starting from the beginning. It’s so weird.
BHATTACHARYA: With seven of my friends, I wrote this long document called the Norfolk Group, and it's a blueprint for what an honest commission would look like for COVID. If you have a plane crash, the NTSB comes and checks the black box out and says, “Okay, here's what the problem was.” And they try to do reforms to make sure those problems don't happen again.
We need something like that. Not some whitewash.
Everyone knows the government didn’t do everything right. For me, the key thing isn't to point fingers at people—
THACKER: That's because you're an academic. I'm a journalist. It’s my job to point the fingers.
BHATTACHARYA: Things were done wrong, so let's fix them. Let's fix the processes so we don't have the same things don't happen again. We owe it to the public.
So many mistakes, both in interpretations of science, actions taken by the government, that need to be addressed so that we can reform places like the NIH. Why didn't the CDC conduct key studies to find out how fast this virus was spreading?
THACKER: Are we 100% certain that when the next pandemic starts that the CDC is going to do a study like this? Or is it going to be some professor throwing together test kits and getting a bunch of colleagues together? Like some late night undergraduate team project.
Do we even have assurances that the CDC will do such a study today?
BHATTACHARYA: I’m not sure the CDC is prepared. It's just an agency set up for bureaucratic inertia and allowing … The people really in charge of the United States pandemic response were people like Toni Fauci. The CDC should have been responsible, should have been the point organization.
When the CDC has random professors on the outside like me, trying to help, how do they take that advice and use it? Or do they just try to do PR takedowns whenever someone disagrees with them?
It came out in emails that the NIH was trying to do a takedown of me.
Let’s get people together and start to figure all this out.
THACKER: To this day, when I look back, there were only two major questions we had about this pandemic. Number one: how did it start? So we know how to prevent the next one.
Number two, how do we deal with it?
On the first question, the federal government misdirected and lied about the possibility that this pandemic could have started in a Chinese lab—a lab in China that we know was funded by Tony Fauci.
On the second question, we were told to deal with the pandemic with vaccines, lockdowns and masks. And what do we know?
These vaccines were not as great as we were told. They didn’t stop the virus from spreading. We still we don't know the total amount of side effects. Some experts tell me that some of the long COVID we are seeing could be vaccine side effects, not effects from the virus.
On the lockdowns. I think it wasn’t until late 2022, that people were finally acknowledging the devastating impact on the kids—grades, school attendance, mental health. So stupid. It’s entry level thinking that every medical intervention has a side effect. And we acted like there was no side effect for lockdowns, which was crazy.
We were told masks work to stop the virus from spreading. There's no real evidence of this. To me, the problem … what if we get a virus that does kill 5% of people it infects. We've now trained society that masks work, which gives them this false sense of safety to go about their business.
That's why I think that we're almost back to square one. There's been no learning. No learning at all.
BHATTACHARYA: I think the people that designed the pandemic response, they have a very vested interest in making sure that people don't really ask those questions. Our response on almost every single aspect, of almost every single policy, was an utter failure. And confidence in public health is at an all time low.
THACKER: It’s in the toilet. Right there with journalism.
BHATTACHARYA: You can criticize your own field. I criticize mine. I should say one thing about John Ioannidis, who I work with at Stanford. Because the criticism that was levelled at him really show how things got out of control.
THACKER: You should know. I made fun of him early on in the pandemic. People were complaining that he was being criticized and I was like, “Cry me a river. He’s a tenured professor at Stanford. He’s gonna be alright.”
I came around when the criticism against him turned to censorship. He was suddenly getting kicked off social media.
BHATTACHARYA: It wasn't just simply criticism of him and his ideas. It was personal. At one point in 2020, he told me that somebody had spread a malicious rumor, essentially saying that his mom had died of COVID. And that this was some sort of cosmic justice because he had said the virus wasn’t as deadly as some thought.
But his mom hadn't died of COVID, his mom hadn’t died of anything. She was this sweet old woman living in Greece, but she started getting phone calls from friends, “Did you die of COVID?! Why weren’t we told!”
She had this like hypertensive crisis because of the stress—all this criticism—involving her in a public fight, because of her son at Stanford. It was such nastiness. You can't involve family in this.
Criticize me, okay? I'm a professor at Stanford. I've been criticized my entire career. That's partly what we do in science. And we criticize each other's ideas. But to turn science into this high stakes game, that drags in your family.
It just turned nasty in a way that was completely unwarranted. It made it almost impossible for scientists to participate if they had conclusions that ran against the government. A lot of scientists, as a result, they stayed silent.
THACKER: I saw this also, right as the vaccines started to become available. I don’t like dealing with vaccines as a reporter, but I’ve dealt a lot with corruption in biomedicine and the FDA. So people I know contacted me. Three professors at Ivy League institutions who asked me what I thought about the vaccines. I didn’t know anything. But they knew I have contacts in this area and follow problems in biomedicine.
I just gave them my best advice. I said, these vaccines are being approved at the speed of science. I now say they were they were they were approved at the speed of profit. And, I said that every product that has gone through the FDA, we almost always find out that it never is as good as we were initially told. There's always more side effects that we find out later.
What’s interesting is none of these three made any public comment about their private concerns about these vaccines. They brought it up to me in private, but no tweets, no essays, no quotes in the media.
I feel people had all these real private concerns, but were scared to say anything public, for fear of being labeled crazy or anti-science. All these labels that are thrown around.
BHATTACHARYA: Two senior FDA administrators resigned around the approval of boosters. There were a few very brave people that were willing to pay costs. But my God, why require people to pay professionally when they're expressing their honest, professional opinion on these kinds of topics?
We created an environment where, if you contradicted official public health, your career was on the line. Your family could get attacked. Death threats and racist attacks. I got hate mail for two straight years. Every time I would say anything in public, write anything, even in scientific journals—I would get hate mail.
There was a campaign at Stanford to put posters with me everywhere accusing me of killing people in Florida, and my crime was advising the governor. Florida has lower excess deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, than California does.
THACKER: Do you think discussions now are going to stop any of that from happening in the future, or do you think it's just pissing in the wind?
BHATTACHARYA: I see two paths. I have one very optimistic path, which I don't think is likely. Science and public health reforms itself. That's possible. You’re going to laugh at me, but I always operate under the idea that we are rational … Okay, you’re laughing at me.
BHATTACHARYA: I guess it seems really unlikely that these institutions will reform themselves.
The second path is that political upheaval judges the people who designed these policies and constrains the power of public health so that they can't do this again. I think that's the more likely outcome.
Right now, the people who designed and implemented the policies still hold powerful, powerful positions. They're patting themselves on the back, they're giving themselves awards, and they're trying to rewrite history to look like the good guys. Most of our population understands these policies failed.
The virus went everywhere We didn't protect vulnerable, older people—80% of the deaths were for people over 65. The collateral harms from lockdowns are being paid by children, paid by poor people, paid by the most vulnerable among us. It's not going to be possible to sweep that under the rug forever. The extent of damage is too deep.
People are still scared around this virus, but as that fear fades and we start to look back in sober reflection of what happened. I have no doubt in my mind that there's going to be an honest evaluation of the pandemic response. That history will be written. If not by this generation, then by the kids harmed by the policies that we put in place.
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