In defense of The Great Barrington Declaration

OPINION

BY ALEX LIESKE

As the seasonal wave of coronavirus is hitting its peak and beginning to decline, the sensationalist reporting seems to be hitting a fever pitch. We are living in a time of misinformation, hyper-politicization, and the manipulation of facts to fit preconceived narratives, instead of allowing the facts to lead us to answers. Right now, as the fall seasonal wave of COVID-19 peaks and begins to decline in most places, it is important to address the ground swell of regular people, myself included, who have grown increasingly concerned with the egregious abuse of power by our politicians and the media. This abuse has led to an attempted power grab and narrative control unseen in modern times. We have arrived at a point where if you question the narrative crafted by those in power, despite overwhelming facts to substantiate your claims, you will be attacked, ridiculed, and potentially censored. And even as more evidence and clarity regarding COVID-19 and our response presents itself, supporting any counter-narrative will still lead to increasingly vile and defensive attacks from the privileged elitists leading the charge. 

I am not an investigative journalist, epidemiologist, or infectious disease specialist. But, like many people, I’ve become increasingly troubled by not only our response in the United States and elsewhere, but by the narrative that’s been shaped by the privileged elites in Washington, D.C., and our mainstream media. However, not having a medical background should not preclude me, or anyone else, from being able to look at public data and statistical analysis from non-partisan experts and formulating my own opinions. Uninvited, these bureaucrats have inserted themselves full-force into our families’ lives, so we have every right, and obligation, to check their math. What makes America great is not only our diversity of race, gender, and religion, but our diversity of thought; this is the foundation on which America was built. Attempting to mute any dissenting opinions is a recipe for disaster and a slippery slope we shouldn’t want to navigate.

One such response strategy that has felt the wrath of the elites is The Great Barrington Declaration, authored by Drs. Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford University), Martin Kulldorff (Harvard University), and Sunetra Gupta (University of Oxford). Often referred to as the “let it rip” or “herd immunity” strategy, both of which are incorrect, The Declaration presents us with logical, rational, and reasonable ideas derived from the expertise of the authors. Contrary to the stringent protocols we see now, the authors acknowledge both the seriousness of COVID-19 and the negative consequences derived from being too singularly focused on the pandemic; it’s a necessary balancing act that many policymakers have failed to recognize. 

Here are the main points of The Great Barrington Declaration:

  • The Declaration was written because of growing concern regarding the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic when it became clear that lockdowns, over-testing, contact tracing, and forced isolation were creating greater collateral damage than the virus itself.
  • The heaviest burden of the response was placed on the shoulders of the disadvantaged and working class, as well as children from all economic backgrounds.
      
  • Human intervention has not stopped the virus, regardless of stringency. The longer the threat exists, the longer the at-risk are in danger, as well as the supply chains being disrupted by lockdowns.
  • Instead of a full-scale lockdown of society, The Declaration calls for an approach called “Focused Protection.”  In other words, we should target our efforts to aggressively protect the vulnerable and at-risk and allow those at minimal risk (the vast majority of the population) to live normally and build up protective immunity for everyone. The dangers of COVID-19 for children are less than that of influenza and other common seasonal viruses.

What seems like a reasonable and logical response to COVID-19, especially considering the death and despair caused by disruptions and lockdowns, has become the target of authoritarian technocrats in media and governments around the world who have promoted, at times, the strictest, most draconian measures. Not only is the collateral damage of these types of initiatives great, but these human intervention measures haven’t stopped the spread of the virus anywhere in the world.

One such attack came from an opinion piece written in The Conversation by Stephen Archer. This is a perfect example of completely missing the point—a case study in what-not-to-do in journalism. Archer relies on cherry-picked data and unsubstantiated talking points to dismiss the validity of The Declaration and its authors. Right out of the gate, we find out just how out-of-touch the pro-lockdown crowd is:

These measures can control case spread but, lets face it, they are no fun. Even harder to weather are the intermittent closures of businesses and schools in response to local pandemic spikes.”

Calling lockdowns “no fun” and “hard to weather” shows a complete lack of awareness in regard to the widescale despair and destruction that lockdowns cause across the United States and globally. “Intermittent closures”? Over 100,000 small businesses have been forced to close permanently, destroying livelihoods, dreams, and the futures of many families. This destruction, which is already happening and quantifiable, will cause far more damage than the coronavirus ever could. Identifying the negative byproducts of the lockdowns and the ripple effect they cause is one of the main points of The Declaration. To name a few:

The deceit continues in the next paragraph:

“Infectious bad ideas called cognogens readily spread in our stressed pandemic environment. One such cognogen, the Great Barrington Declaration, is causing harm. The declaration takes its name from Great Barrington, a Massachusetts resort town. This declaration, signed by 12,000 people, is sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think-tank.”

First, refusing to look at the merits of differing ideas is not only foolish, but it’s dangerous. Second, to imply that The Declaration is in some way politically-driven is misinformed. The authors come from starkly different political backgrounds, and Archer’s assertions appear to be pulled almost directly from Wikipedia.  

It only gets worse from there:

The declaration begins with the false premise that governments intend to lock down society, and cherry-picks facts (for example, that COVID-19 infections are mild in healthy people). It states:

“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.”

I’m confident that this is a paragraph that Archer would like to have back, as stay-at-home orders were issued for all of the United Kingdom a mere 4 days later. The fact that the U.K. was already flattening at the time that lockdowns were implemented only adds to the senselessness. It’s not cherry-picking to state that the vast majority of the population is statistically in little-to-no danger from COVID-19; it’s a fact. If you’re keeping score at home, Archer is already well over par, and we’ve just begun the round. 

The first of Archer’s 5 flaws states: 

It creates a false dichotomy. The declaration rhetoric offers a false choice between a wholesale return to our pre-pandemic lives (which is objectively dangerous) versus a total lockdown (which no one advocates)…Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy, notes that it’s not a binary choice between the Barrington perspective and full lockdown, and that governments are striving to balance public health with economic recovery.

This is misleading and manipulative, whether you agree or disagree with the strategy outlined in The Declaration. It does not, in any way, offer a false choice. The premise of The Declaration is an aggressive and targeted protection of the at-risk, while allowing those at extremely low risk to function normally. Intentional or not, this is an extremely poor representation of the strategy outlined in The Declaration and its methodology. The previous section stated that it is now abundantly clear that strict lockdowns are still on the table, as evidenced by new restrictions in Europe and states like California. Lockdowns push the burden from society as a whole onto the working class and disadvantaged, increasing inequalities that we normally strive to eliminate. 

If you were hoping for some hard-hitting facts that could lead to respectful debate, you won’t find them in the 2nd flaw: 

The Barrington declaration gives oxygen to fringe groups. The signatories did not intend to support such fringe groups, but their rhetoric invalidates public health policy and feeds the 19 percent of North Americans who don’t trust public health officials.

When physicians and scientists sign on to the declaration they support the fears of an increasingly anxious public and fuel conspiracy theories.

The authors of The Declaration aren’t responsible for who supports it any more than political candidates, all of whom have fringe supporters regardless of party. This is just another example, like the comment above about sponsorship, of a false “guilt-by-association” tactic commonly used when the facts don’t match the chosen narrative.

Let’s be crystal clear about the real mental health issues and distrust to which Archer alludes. The public is anxious because of misinformation campaigns (like Archer’s opinion piece), suppression of liberties, and a complete lack of context offered by the privileged elites in the mainstream media and government at all levels. The devastating effects of school closures, contrary to all facts suggesting that schools are not only safe to open, but vitally important, also fuels this anxiety for parents, kids, and young adults alike. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the current COVID-19 policy and response invalidates itself, as we have strayed from all prior pandemic strategy and preparation outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. The collateral damage of our response will be, sadly, widespread, long-lasting, and of a greater magnitude than the damage caused by the virus.

The Barrington declaration puts individual preference far above public good. The declaration advocates that, “individual people, based upon their own perception of their risk of dying from COVID-19 and other personal circumstances, personally choose the risks, activities and restrictions they prefer.”

If these views were applied to traffic safety, chaos would ensue as we each chose our own speed limit and which side of the road to drive on. Public health matters, and the approach of the declaration to place ideology over facts helps fuel the pandemic.

As my brain tries to move past the irrelevant analogy of driving at high speeds on the wrong side of the road, an undoubtedly high-risk endeavor, I wonder if Archer has even looked at the risk profiles? Can anyone connect the dots between the risk this virus presents to the vast majority of the population and the response? Unlike Europe, which somehow got this part right, many schools remain closed in the United States. We have kids and healthy adults, who could be the front line of protective immunity for the at-risk and vulnerable, walking around in masks and scared to go near one another. We have college campuses, which provide an extremely low-risk opportunity to increase our overall immunity, quarantining healthy students and canceling in-person learning due to contact tracing protocols. It’s not 1918.  Put simply, if you’re generally healthy and under 70, you partake in activities on a daily basis (see driving a car) that present to you more risk than COVID-19. 

I want to address the notion of “public good” by highlighting the mass destruction that the current policies leave in their wake. While “public good” sounds virtuous, tying it to lockdown policies as if they are only a mere inconvenience is borderline lunacy. We could go as far as saying that supporting these restrictions and being oblivious to the negative byproducts of these actions is not only selfish, but it’s deadly. If Archer claims that the approach of The Declaration places ideology over facts, he should be able to provide those facts. Where is proof that this “ideology” fuels the pandemic? More importantly, where is any evidence that lockdowns, disruptions, and closures have in any way slowed the pandemic and/or prevented more damage than they have caused? All we have ever seen are flimsy projections based on failed assumptions of what “might” happen if we fail to act. None of these projections have come close to fruition (and please don’t say it’s because of human intervention; we have Sweden as the base case). Until evidence is provided, color me skeptical.

If you are still reading and waiting for the smoking gun, then you’ll be disappointed. Flaw #4: 

The declaration misunderstands herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when a large enough proportion of the population has immunity, usually more than 70 per cent. Viral spread is then slowed because the virus largely encounters immune people. Herd immunity can be safely achieved by vaccines, but in order to “naturally” develop herd immunity, people must first survive the infection.

Despite more than nine million cases in the United States, less than 10 per cent of Americans have COVID-19 antibodies. Even if true caseloads were 10-fold greater than recognized, 94 per cent of people remain susceptible and, if rapidly infected, would swamp the health-care system and lead to many avoidable deaths.

The Declaration doesn’t misunderstand herd immunity (that’s a laughable assertion), but Archer and his peers certainly misunderstand The Declaration. As Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor in Stanford’s Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research Department, has said, “Herd immunity is not a strategy – it is a biological fact that applies to most infectious diseases.” The goal of The Declaration is not to reach herd immunity as quickly as possible, but rather to structure a response that shields the vulnerable, builds protective immunity in the population in those at negligible risk, and decreases death and despair in the long run. The risk profile of COVID-19 is less dangerous than the flu for the majority of the population, so this is not only plausible, but it’s the more compassionate response.

On top of this, Archer is spreading false information regarding the level of susceptibility remaining in the U.S. population, the very thing he claims to be dangerous. The basic math in his statement doesn’t even make sense. In this case, it has to be intentional, because there are plenty of studies available since late spring regarding the cross-reactivity of T-cells offering protective immunity for a good portion of the population. Using 94% as a number for those that are still susceptible is so ludicrous it’s not even worth diving into.  

Archer did not save his best for last, unfortunately. I present flaw #5: 

The declaration offers no details on how it would protect the vulnerable. In Ontario, more than 60 per cent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in residents of nursing homes and long-term care (LTC) facilities. COVID-19 is imported into LTCs from the community by relatives and health-care workers, so we must prevent viral spread in the community to keep these vulnerable people safe.

The experts have spoken: Experts view the Barrington declaration as wrong-minded and dangerous. Dr. Anthony Fauci dismissed the idea, calling it dangerous.

You don’t have to look any further than The Great Barrington Declaration FAQ page for a detailed breakdown of how to protect the vulnerable.  It’s hidden in the section called “Protecting the old and other high risk groups.” Archer’s point is appreciated, however, because it bolsters the idea that The Declaration is trying to make: we should not be using a heterogeneous response for a virus that attacks a very specific, homogeneous population. The at-risk population was hit hard not because of any failed policy but because the virus spread quickly in February and March before we were prepared to protect  them. Aggressive protection of the vulnerable, as outlined on the website, coupled with growing protective immunity in the extremely low-risk, is a far less complicated task than policing all aspects of society. Spread in the low-risk population will not overwhelm the health care system, and, at this stage of the pandemic, will help usher everyone back to the old normal.

One can only hope that we’re past the point of accepting what the “experts” say at face value. The strategy advocated in The Declaration is “dangerous”?  More dangerous than 150 million CHILDREN in developing countries (not all people, but CHILDREN) going into poverty? Many of these CHILDREN will die from famine and disruption from medical supply chains. More dangerous than 40% of stroke and heart attack victims (1.6 million combined per year) not going to the emergency room out of undue fear of the virus, a narrative peddled in this article and by the privileged elites in media? More dangerous than missed cancer screenings, treatments, and child vaccines? More dangerous than the fact that 1 in 4 young adults considered suicide over the summer months due to lockdown-induced depression and anxiety? My idea of dangerous isn’t a virus with a survival rate of 99.8% for healthy people. My idea of dangerous is a response that already has, and will continue to, cause emotional and economic despair and massive loss of life around the world.

My advice: if you want expert analysis, follow non-partisan and apolitical medical professionals, data scientists, and statisticians. Following the advice of an agenda-driven career bureaucrat like Dr. Fauci can lead to devastating consequences, as we’re starting to see. Dr. Fauci has flip-flopped on the efficacy of masks, asymptomatic spread (proven to be insignificant in overall transmission), and T-cell cross-protection for no other reason than political convenience. I can assure you the science didn’t change in the past 6 months, no matter how “novel” the coronavirus with which we are dealing. Just in the past week, Dr. Fauci changed his narrative and supported school openings, reflecting the facts that we’ve known since June from Europe: not only are schools not super-spreading environments (potentially from built-up cross-protection in kids), but the negative results and effects of virtual learning (or worse, no school) can no longer be ignored and buried by the elites.  

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on one of Archer’s closing comments:

The Snow memorandum cites clear evidence that the virus is highly contagious, several times more lethal than influenza and can have lasting consequences, even in healthy people.

Again, what we’re seeing is an intentional misrepresentation of the facts by Archer. For the sake of context, COVID-19 compared to influenza is several times more lethal for the sick and vulnerable (a small minority of the population) but several times less lethal for the vast majority of the population, namely kids, adolescents, and young adults. The most commonly used tactic is presenting SARS-CoV-2 as “novel”; we often hear “there’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus.” This gives policymakers a blank check in determining our response, based on faulty projections and the straw man of “long-term complications.” We have heard of potential Kawasaki Disease in kids, myocarditis, “long-haul COVID,” and other potential consequences from contracting the virus. Brooks B. Gump from US News & World Report joined in the fun:

Are children and younger adults truly at lower risk? If we use metrics of hospitalizations and death, the answer would be yes. However, we are completely in the dark as to whether infection with the coronavirus has subclinical effects that might take years to develop into disease. The key theme when considering any related advice is that this virus is “novel” – we just don’t have a long history of understanding. Many conditions have minimal to no acute effects on health – such as elevated blood pressure – but can have significant long-term consequences.

Elevated blood pressure is a common symptom of a viral infection. The truth is, there is no greater prevalence of these things from COVID-19 than other typical seasonal viruses, like other strains of coronavirus and influenza, that we co-exist with every year. We actually know a lot about coronaviruses, and the chances are exceedingly slim that SARS-CoV-2 acts differently than all others and leads to “subclinical effects that might take years to develop into disease.” COVID-19 is a nasty bug that aggressively attacked vulnerable people back in the spring and summer, but the only thing novel about it is the level of fear and lack of logic resulting from the sensationalized narrative rammed down our throats. These contextless types of statements from Archer and Gump are common and fraught with intentional manipulation, using incorrect and/or baseless claims to drive fear. They’ve done a great disservice, and the politicization and weaponization of COVID-19 are complicit in a great deal of suffering and death here in the United States and around the world.

My concern is not with COVID-19; it never was.  My concern is with policymakers who, despite the benefit of hindsight, still can’t, or won’t, admit their errors. Perhaps it’s just the stubborn narcissism of politicians and talking heads, but what I fear and what keeps me up at night is “what if this happens again?” The COVID nightmare is ending, as the pandemic has continued to statistically wane since summer, but it’s the 12th round, and humanity has it on the ropes. There is an argument to be made that COVID-19 might be an afterthought long before a vaccine can effectively be rolled out to the masses, but the emotional scars from this nightmare are going to remain. This said, The Declaration has never been more important, and, as a community, we need to address the elephant in the room and fix our pandemic strategy. The first step is fixing where we are now, and groups like The Great Barrington Declaration and Rational Ground have laid the groundwork for a safe reopening and logical protocols moving forward.

Contrary to the many flimsy, unsubstantiated hit pieces, The Declaration is perhaps the most virtuous and compassionate strategy that has been proposed. It minimizes the collateral damage from lockdowns and disruption of life, maintains the civil liberties to which we are all entitled, and would unquestionably shorten the duration of the current, overreaching policy that’s crushing the economies and livelihoods in many parts of the world. As mentioned before, the idea of full suppression of COVID-19, or any virus, is mere fantasy. “Zero COVID” is a catchy slogan and political talking point but completely devoid of logic or reason. Specifically, regarding The Declaration, we need open, respectful, and honest debate between opposing viewpoints; this is how we move forward. In general, we need to stop censoring people and ideas simply because they see the world differently, for if we set that precedent, we have put ourselves on the most slippery of slopes. We desperately need decency, courtesy, and respect back in our public discourse to ensure that the self-inflicted destruction of 2020 never happens again.