Authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, including Dr. Jay Bhattacharya at right.
Stanford professor questions efficacy of lockdowns and vaccine mandates
The Department of Economics hosted Stanford Professor of Medicine, Health Policy, and Economics Jay Bhattacharya on January 31 as part of its Combs Lecture Series.
The free but ticketed event was attended by about sixty Notre Dame students, faculty, and members of the wider Notre Dame community. The audience in the Patricia George Decio Theatre at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center was greeted by Economics Department Chair Eric Sims, who introduced Dr. Bhattacharya and outlined his hopes for the evening.
In light of the three-year anniversary of the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States, Professor Sims explained that his goal for the lecture was to find a presenter “who could speak to the medical, public health, and economic aspects” of the virus. He identified Bhattacharya’s extensive academic credentials and reputation in public health as primary reasons for extending the department’s invitation to speak.
Bhattacharya began by chronicling his ascent to prominence over the past three years as part of his clash with other public health leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. He then turned to the background for the conflict, explaining that the data suggests a 99.8% overall survivability rate for the virus. With that knowledge, he asked the audience to decide whether they would have preferred to take their chances with COVID or enter a lockdown if they could go back to the start of the pandemic. While a majority expressed that they were willing to accept the risk, a sizable minority raised their hands in support of lockdown measures.
“That means there’s a lot of difference in how we manage risk in the population at large. And that’s the central problem of public health during the pandemic: we’ve had one view of risk—devoid of nuance—during the lockdown,” said Bhattacharya. Embracing that certain segments of the population have greater risk factors and risk aversion than others, he proposed that a more effective health policy approach would focus on those who needed protection most.
He recounted conducting a seroprevalence survey, a type of blood sample that shows how much of a population has developed antibodies to a pathogen, during the initial phase of the outbreak in California. The data that Bhattacharya and his team collected revealed that the virus had a mortality rate far below the figure that was promoted by the federal government at the time. Another key finding which informed his perspective on COVID policy was the discovery that school-aged children were highly unlikely to spread the virus to their teachers.
“Kids were not superspreaders,” argued Bhattacharya: “Schoolteachers were less than half as likely to get COVID with normal social distancing than the average of other workers in the population.” He identified Sweden, where schools remained open for in-person instruction, as having developed far more effective strategies than those implemented here in the United States.
In October 2020, Bhattacharya co-authored the Great Barrington Declaration to advocate for focused protections aimed at minimizing both COVID deaths and collateral lockdown damages, as an alternative to lockdowns or a “let-it-rip” strategy. He explained that the declaration’s popularity led to an email exchange between the former director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, and Anthony Fauci in which Collins labeled Bhattacharya a “fringe epidemiologist.” Dr. Bhattacharya then produced a business card with his name, contact information, and Collins’s pejorative label and showed it to the audience, seemingly bearing the insult with pride.
Overcoming the virus, Bhattacharya emphasized, requires that individuals choose to resume their normal lives. “The end of the pandemic is a political decision. No matter what fringe epidemiologists like me tell you, it’s not about getting rid of COVID from the population. COVID’s here to stay forever.”
During the question and answer period, junior Merlot Fogarty asked Bhattacharya whether there was any benefit to the university’s recently-implemented bivalent booster requirement for students. He responded by saying, “I don’t think there’s almost any benefit for the vast majority of people your age,” a remark which elicited significant applause in the theater.
While some vulnerable populations may still benefit from the injections, he commented that “there’s just no purpose” to mandating COVID vaccination at scale, especially among young and healthy people. Bhattacharya concluded his remarks by saying that “public health has to restore its credibility, and that starts with admitting error.”
Junior Madelyn Stout said she found the lecture “quite necessary in formulating a calm, constructive dialogue about the pandemic lockdowns and engaging with various viewpoints when it comes to the necessity of such a response. While I had some idea of the consequences of the lockdowns, the collateral damage that Dr. Bhattacharya walked the audience through was simultaneously thought-provoking and horrifying.”
Reflecting on the university’s bivalent booster requirement, she explained, “I find it concerning that the university is insistent on vaccinating an age cohort that is, as Dr. Bhattacharya illustrated with data, hardly affected by the virus. As someone who did take the first vaccine dose in good faith, I wish I had known the data that Dr. Bhattacharya walked us through.”
Students at Notre Dame have until March 1st to receive the bivalent booster vaccination or to have their exemption approved. If they are not compliant by this time, they will be penalized by having their academic registration put on hold.
PJ Butler is a junior from St. Louis, Missouri majoring in political science and theology and minoring in constitutional studies. If you are unable to find him in the gym when he’s training for hypertrophy, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Taleed Brown.