The man at the center of a new congressional COVID-19 inquiry has a dubious past.
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Dr. Jay Bhattacharya wants you to know that he’s been silenced.
The Stanford University professor and co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) — a widely rebuked open letter recommending governments reject broad public health measures in the face of COVID-19 — was a star GOP expert witness at the February 28 hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.
He and his fellow GOP experts are all members of the so-called Norfolk Group, an offshoot of the Brownstone Institute, a dark money group that has become a hub for COVID-19 misinformation. Predictably, they spent the hour-long hearing lamenting public health mandates, and claiming to be part of a “censored” opposition to the mainstream narrative.
“Public health bureaucrats operated more like dictators than scientists during the pandemic, sealing themselves off from credible outside criticism,” Bhattacharya said.
Bhattacharya, who is currently suing the Biden administration over its alleged role in his censorship, should be a familiar name to anyone who read the previous House reports on the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response. He is featured prominently as one of the people whose contrarian and often disastrously wrong takes helped inform one of the world’s worst responses to the pandemic.
Readers may also recognize Bhattacharya for his work with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), his Wall Street Journal and Newsweek op-eds, his various speaking engagements, and his frequent Fox News appearances.
Vaccinating India’s entire population would be “unethical” because most Indians have natural immunity from infection [according to Bhattacharya]. Weeks later, India had its worst surge in coronavirus-related deaths.
Purporting to be an ally to the poor and working class, the professor has made a name for himself as one of the scientists willing to sign off on the business-aligned political right’s agenda, opposing policies like Medicare for all and lending his academic credibility to a war on pandemic mitigation efforts which has been raging since March 2020.
Although his views on public health run contrary to the mainstream of the field, don’t call Bhattacharya “fringe.” In 2020, both President Trump’s former coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, and former director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, described him and his Great Barrington Declaration colleagues as “fringe.” Bhattacharya has never gotten over it.
The professor — who does not have a doctorate in epidemiology — has been demanding endless re-hearings of his ideas to anyone that will listen, claiming that they would have more support among public health experts were it not for nefarious government actors like Fauci.
The congressional hearings are just the latest venue for his fury.
“When Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, here today, Sunetra Gupta, a professor at Oxford University, and I proposed a focused protection alternative — not a herd immunity alternative — to lockdowns in October 2020, then-NIH Director Francis Collins labeled the three of us ‘fringe epidemiologists’ and engaged a media campaign to take down our proposal to which tens of thousands of doctors, epidemiologists, and scientists endorsed, including a Nobel Prize winner,” he told the congressional panel.
“Under the banner of combating misinformation, government health agencies used their power to collaborate with social media companies to control the public conversation about COVID-19 science and policy.”
Bhattacharya’s ideas have been heavily criticized. After the GBD’s publication, 14 major public health organizations, including the American Public Health Association and Trust for America’s Health, penned an open letter denouncing the document, while World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it “unethical.”
It wasn’t long before public health experts had a response called the John Snow Memorandum, urging a rejection of the Declaration.
But if Bhattacharya has been silenced, he’s certainly one of the loudest “silenced” individuals in recent memory. He and his colleagues, and their GBD, have influenced policy at both the national and state level.
The US, with its staggering death toll and millions suffering long COVID, owes much of its pandemic failure to the Stanford professor and his colleagues.
Throughout the pandemic, Bhattacharya has leveraged his Stanford pedigree to wage an ideological war on public health measures, promoting the narrative that the government response to SARS-CoV-2 was more harmful than the virus itself. He has called lockdowns the “biggest public health mistake we’ve ever made” and blamed them for all kinds of ills including a bizarre suggestion that they may have been responsible for Russia’s war on Ukraine — Bhattacharya’s interpretation of a comment by French leader Emmanuel Macron.
The professor has made numerous other false and misleading claims related to the pandemic. Those include:
Masks do not prevent the spread of COVID-19 and may be harmful to child development.
The mRNA vaccines are dangerous for young people.
The new bivalent boosters were insufficiently tested.
The wet market origin theory of COVID-19 was a “cover up.”
Vaccinating India’s entire population would be “unethical” because most Indians have natural immunity from infection. Weeks later, India had its worst surge in coronavirus-related deaths.
Bhattacharya has also encouraged his followers to make fantastical claims about journalists. For example, after journalist Kiera Butler wrote an article in Mother Jones about the professor’s misleading statements about the bivalent booster premarket testing, Bhattacharya liked tweets suggesting that Butler was paid off or invested in big pharma.
The professor’s advocacy has proven a boon to his career. Bhattacharya has found reliable promotion in right-wing politics — from meetings with top White House officials to advising state officials, from being called upon as an expert witness before federal judges and congressional committees to receiving honorary titles, from media appearances to speaking gigs around the world.
Friends in High Places
Bhattacharya’s rise began during the Trump presidency. He co-authored the widely circulated but thoroughly disputed Santa Clara antibody seroprevalence study. Published in April 2020, the study suggested COVID-19 was far more infectious than scientists thought, but less dangerous.
The work found an audience on the right where it was used to justify the push to reopen, but faced heavy criticism for lacking evidence. BuzzFeed later revealed that the authors had received funding from the founder of JetBlue and failed to disclose it.
Despite the problems with his study, Bhattacharya continued to gain attention. In the spring of 2020, he and another Stanford professor, Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuropathologist, had “bonded” over their shared concerns about lockdowns. In July, Atlas was secretly hired by Jared Kushner as a White House COVID-19 adviser. In that role, he had the ear of Trump, who had been concerned about the impact the pandemic would have on his reelection chances.
Trump wanted the country to reopen — and the economy to recover — as quickly as possible. As he put it in March 2020, he wanted America “opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
The Great Barrington Declaration
Atlas shared Trump’s concerns and offered an easy solution: a herd immunity strategy eventually formalized in the Great Barrington Declaration. The idea of limited protections for the vulnerable while accepting mass infection had been percolating in right-wing circles since the pandemic began — the Heritage Foundation released a reopening plan that called to return to business as usual as quickly as possible while somehow protecting vulnerable people, particularly in nursing homes.
Atlas helped sell it to the administration.
For Bhattacharya, Atlas represented access to the top government officials in the nation. The two were in frequent contact, according to Atlas’s book, A Plague Upon Our House. For Atlas, Bhattacharya was one of several experts he would use in August 2020 to convince the president to scale back testing and nonpharmaceutical interventions.
Atlas secured a secret meeting between Trump and a group of scientists that included Bhattacharya on August 26 and a second meeting with Vice President Mike Pence the next day. Future Great Barrington Declaration co-author Martin Kulldorff, a biostatistician from Harvard Medical School — who is now affiliated with Brownstone and the Norfolk Group and also served as a GOP expert in last month’s hearing — was also in attendance. So too was Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a Harvard-educated physician whose specialty was internal medicine.
Ladapo had risen to national prominence by appearing in a July 2020 video with America’s Frontline Doctors, the shadowy political group that hawked quack COVID-19 cures as vaccine alternatives and whose founder, Dr. Simone Gold, would be convicted for participating in the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Trump had shared the video on social media before it was taken down as COVID-19 misinformation. Ladapo would later be tapped by DeSantis for Florida surgeon general.
Following the meetings, Bhattacharya and Kulldorff penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal titled, “The Case against COVID-19 Tests for the Young and Healthy,” arguing forcefully in support of the new testing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which Atlas had masterminded. According to a staff report from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, the changes to the guidance saw sharp declines in testing between late August and early September. Atlas wrote in his book that he had provided the pair with data for the piece.
The Trump COVID-19 czar not only secured audiences for Bhattacharya with top administration officials, but he was also instrumental in making the Great Barrington Declaration a reality.
As early as August 2020, there had been talks percolating on the right of a panel discussion about COVID-19 and herd immunity. Originally, Bhattacharya’s meeting with Trump had been planned as a public event with press, but that had changed.
Meanwhile, Kulldorff had been talking to Jeffrey Tucker, then-editorial director of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a libertarian think tank that has received funding from billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s political network. Those talks about starting an anti-lockdown movement would eventually lead to the idea of a panel discussion with press, Bhattacharya, and Oxford University epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta at AIER’s headquarters in Great Barrington, MA.
Gupta had met with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sweden’s top epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, in September, and pitched a herd immunity strategy to them. Tegnell would oversee Sweden’s disastrous early COVID-19 response that saw the country reject broad public health interventions, resulting in more COVID-19 and excess deaths than its immediate Nordic neighbors, and a significant percentage of its adult population estimated to be suffering long-term illness.
Kulldorff wanted Gupta to be involved and AIER agreed to cover her travel expenses. There was one problem: She was still in the UK and Trump had suspended travel from Europe.
Enter Scott Atlas. When the venue had been picked, the Trump COVID-19 czar set to work securing passage for Gupta. With Kushner’s approval, he scheduled a meeting for the three future co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration — Bhattacharya, Kulldorff, and Gupta — with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. This meeting gave the administration an excuse to clear her passage to the US. Gupta would arrive in time for the conference at AIER, where the declaration was written and signed. The meeting would occur on October 5, the day the document was released to the world.
Following the meeting, Azar lavished the scientists with praise and tweeted that they had validated the White House COVID-19 response of pushing to reopen schools and businesses.
State Level Influence
In addition to directly advising the Trump administration on COVID-19 strategy, Bhattacharya has helped states formulate their own pandemic responses, advising against mitigation measures. He has been advising DeSantis since September 2020. He convinced the governor to lift all restrictions early on. DeSantis has hosted Bhattacharya several times — as well as Kulldorff and Atlas — for panels and discussions to talk COVID-19 policy. Bhattacharya, in turn, has interviewed the Florida governor.
Recently, DeSantis had Bhattacharya and Kulldorff at a press conference at which he announced his plans to convene a statewide grand jury to look into the COVID-19 vaccines and create a Public Health Integrity Committee, which the pair will be a part of. That body will “assess federal public health recommendations and guidance to ensure that Florida’s public health policies are tailored for Florida’s communities and priorities.”
In addition to DeSantis, Bhattacharya was hosted by then-Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) on his podcast. In July 2021, the pair discussed “the origins of the coronavirus, the national response to the pandemic, and the social and economic costs of lockdowns.”
GOP Favorite Expert
Bhattacharya has gotten to make his case on the pandemic before Congress and in court as an expert witness. Congressional Republicans had him testify before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis in a hearing titled, “Combating Coronavirus Cons And The Monetization of Misinformation.”
He helped the American Commitment Foundation, a right-wing dark money group co-founded by a former vice president of the Koch flagship political operation, Americans for Prosperity, with their Supreme Court amicus brief supporting a challenge to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large businesses.
Meanwhile, states have used Bhattacharya as an expert witness defending their pandemic responses. Missouri is using him as an expert in a series of cases against mask and vaccine mandates. Similarly, Florida called on him as its expert witness in an August 2021 lawsuit challenging DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates, which had been crafted with the professor’s input. Bhattacharya served as an expert for Tennessee in a suit defending Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates.
In the latter case, US District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw wrote in his October 2021 ruling that the professor’s testimony was “troubling” and “problematic,” noting that Bhattacharya had “offered opinions regarding the pediatric effects of masks on children, a discipline on which he admitted he was not qualified to speak” and that “his demeanor and tone while testifying suggest that he is advancing a personal agenda.”
“At this stage of the proceedings, the Court is simply unwilling to trust Dr. Bhattacharya,” Crenshaw wrote.
Bhattacharya’s work as an expert witness extends beyond the borders of the US. He helped a group challenging the government of Manitoba’s COVID-19 restrictions, but the judge similarly found his testimony unreliable, noting that it had been contradicted by a range of evidence, including his own sources.
Honors, Titles, and Speaking Gigs
Bhattacharya has been given multiple fellowships and honorary roles at right-wing institutions for his pandemic advocacy. Bhattacharya is currently a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a scientific and editorial adviser at the anti-lockdown UK non profit Collateral Global. He has also been an author and senior scholar at the Brownstone Institute, a dark money group founded by Jeffrey Tucker in 2021, and a contributor to AIER. The conservative Hillsdale College made him a teaching fellow at its Academy for Science and Freedom — a program he helped establish.
"Bhattacharya continues to describe lockdowns as 'the single worst public health mistake in the last 100 years,' with catastrophic health and psychological harms that will play out for a generation."
~ @GabrielleJBauer https://t.co/zrysS1kKez
— Brownstone Institute (@brownstoneinst) February 16, 2023
Meanwhile, he has been a featured speaker at conferences hosted by the Hoover Institution, the Council for National Policy, and AIER. He has been interviewed by Hoover, the Technology Policy Institute, and Reason magazine, and he is currently being represented pro bono in his censorship lawsuit against the Biden administration by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which gets a substantial amount of its funding from Koch.
Bhattacharya’s speaking engagements extend beyond national borders. In September, he did a speaking tour in Australia for Collateral Global. While there, he was hosted at a dinner by the Economic Society of Australia.
The Stanford professor has maintained that he does not receive funding or compensation for his advocacy from any of the groups he is affiliated with. However, Bhattacharya has repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether or not he has received money from Hoover. He was previously a research fellow at the institution, which, according to Glassdoor, is a paid position. In September, Bhattacharya tweeted that his salary is from Stanford. However, he recently tweeted that “Hoover is a part of Stanford University.”
A Media Megaphone
For his unconventional views, Bhattacharya has been showered with media attention, particularly from right-wing media — but not exclusively. He has been given column space in a number of publications to make his case. This brand building has allowed the professor to amass hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and establish himself as a prominent dissenting voice in the national discourse around public health measures.
Bhattacharya has made at least 37 appearances on Fox News since the pandemic began, which other right-wing outfits like Breitbart and the New York Post have amplified. But he has appeared on CNN. He has also been quoted in many outlets from The Wall Street Journal to The New Yorker, The Washington Post to The Daily Caller.
A Devastating Takedown
Bhattacharya’s claims of censorship boil down to actions taken by social media and technology companies against him following criticism he and his ideas have faced from the mainstream public health community — in particular, Dr. Anthony Fauci and former National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins.
In court filings against the Biden administration, Bhattacharya alleges that Google deboosted search results for the GBD while Reddit removed links to it. On another occasion, Facebook removed the GBD page for a week. YouTube also removed the video of DeSantis’s March 2021 roundtable, which he took part in.
In December, former New York Times opinion editor turned conservative activist Bari Weiss revealed in a so-called “Twitter Files” release that Bhattacharya’s account had been placed on a ‘blacklist,’ which prevented him from trending.
Nevertheless, within one month of being on Twitter, the professor had managed to amass 42,000 followers according to a snapshot of his account on the Internet Archive. Today, he boasts a dedicated following of hundreds of thousands of accounts. His success on the platform, however, has not prevented Bhattacharya from claiming censorship.
There is currently no evidence, however, to support the idea that Fauci and Collins ordered the actions of the private technology companies. For example, Lucio Eastman, who was at the declaration’s signing, blamed the removal of the GBD Facebook page on attacks by anti-vaxxers.
Bhattacharya, nevertheless, insists that his social media woes can be traced back to an email exchange between Fauci and Collins from October 2020, months before Joe Biden took office.
“Imagine there hadn’t been an @NIH-led ‘devastating takedown’ of the @gbdeclaration in Oct 2020. Imagine no media/social media suppression,” Bhattacharya tweeted on December 9, 2022. “We would have won the policy argument. Schools would have opened. We would have prioritized protection of the vulnerable. Instead, lockdowns.”
The controversy goes back to the days immediately following the publication of the Great Barrington Declaration. Collins had been alarmed by the fact that the document was gaining press attention and that its authors had met with Azar. He expressed that alarm to Fauci.
“The proposal from the three fringe epidemiologists who met with the secretary seems to be getting a lot of attention,” Collins wrote to his colleague on October 8, 2020. “There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises. I don’t see anything like that online yet — is it underway?”
Fauci responded by sending Collins an op-ed from Wired criticizing the document.
In another email from a few days later, Collins sent Fauci an article he was quoted in pushing back on the Great Barrington Declaration, noting “my quotes are accurate but will not be appreciated in the [White House].”
Yet, there never would be a devastating published takedown of the declaration. Bhattacharya has admitted as much in his court filings. Fauci was an outsider in a Trump administration that embraced the GBD. By the time the document was published, it had been months since Trump had met with his coronavirus task force, which Collins and Fauci were both parts of.
Instead, the president was listening to Atlas and his experts — experts who included Bhattacharya.