The next step in immorality: charging to create and cure diseaseBMJ 2021; 374 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n2268 (Published 16 September 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;374:n2268
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We thank Phillip Magness and James Harrigan for helping to clarify the extent of involvement of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in crafting the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), which came in the form of providing meeting space and lodging, arranging a meeting with journalists, editorial feedback, and amplification in the media (including videography, social media, and web services). Determining the scope of AIER’s involvement in the publication and dissemination of the GBD is crucial to understanding its ideological underpinnings and is a matter of national importance given that Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta, the authors of the GBD, met with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, on 5 October 2020, the day the document was published.
After a weekend conference hosted by AIER and held at its headquarters, the GBD was credited to three scientists: Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta. The rapid response by Magness and Harrigan says that “the idea for a general letter came about spontaneously on the afternoon of October 4” (although the GBD website provides a different timeline beginning on 2 October 2020). In addition to these authors, the conference included AIER Senior Editor Jeffrey Tucker, AIER administrative staff, and journalists John Tamny and David Zweig. AIER claims that none of the GBD signatories “received any money, honoraria, stipend, or salary from anyone for either the Declaration or the video recording.” However, it has been unclear whether, and if so, what other forms of support were provided. We have repeatedly asked AIER for a full accounting of its support of the GBD, because “sponsorship” in the US encompasses not just direct payments to featured participants, but also meals, lodging, travel, alcohol, meeting facilities, communication and organizational support, and other expenses. After repeated prompting, Magness acknowledged that AIER had covered the costs of the signatories’ lodging at AIER’s mansion in Great Barrington, MA, the town after which the GBD was named. We still do not know whether the AIER also paid for the signatories’ travel, because Magness has steadfastly refused to answer that question.
Whatever the level of support, it is now clear that the AIER did more than merely “host” the GBD. In an episode of the official podcast of the John Locke Foundation (a libertarian think tank) posted online a week after the GBD conference, Tucker described how he had been in the room with the GBD signatories during its drafting, adding, “I made a couple of suggestions here and there.” Tucker further described how he himself had been central to organizing the GBD conference—beginning by contacting Martin Kulldorff:
“I quickly dropped him a Twitter notice, ‘We’ve got a nice place, why don’t you come and visit here? We’re a few hours away. We’ll feed you well and relax a bit,’ and he wrote me back, ‘OK.’”
Magness and Harrigan argue that the GBD happened “spontaneously” but Tucker’s account on the podcast suggests otherwise. GBD authors were then put up in AIER’s headquarters, provided with meals and support services, including rapid website design.
Magness and Harrigan ask whether “financial theories about AIER and the GBD” are where we want to hang our hats. The answer is: obviously. The AIER’s support of the GBD and AIER’s own sources of financing are important to understanding its ideological agenda and motives, for example, its well documented climate and tobacco denialism. Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt and a scholar of science denialism, wrote about AIER and the GBD in her book Why Trust Science?, stating that AIER “promotes anti-scientific discussion of climate change, much of which promotes the familiar canard that climate change will be minor and manageable.”
As we said previously, scientists should understand that, when it comes to AIER, we are dealing with “a well-funded sophisticated science denialist campaign based on ideological and corporate interests.”
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. In a legal case in which 7 rural Manitoba churches and 3 individuals argued that Manitoba’s public health measures violated their charter rights, an argument supported in court by GBD author Jay Bhattacharya, Yamey provided unpaid scientific guidance to the legal team that argued in support of public health measures; the judge, Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, ruled that the public health measures were reasonable limitations on the group's charter rights in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. 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.
In their essay “Covid-19 and the new merchants of doubt” (BMJ Opinion, 9/13/21, https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/09/13/covid-19-and-the-new-merchants-of-d...), Gavin Yamey and David Gorski present themselves as defenders of sound scientific principles in the face of “denialism” related to the Covid-19 pandemic. These authors specifically target the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), and the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) as sources of what they imply is a misinformation campaign about the efficacy of Covid-19 public health measures. Unfortunately, it seems to us that Yamey and Gorski have misrepresented both the GBD and AIER.
We write to set the record straight.
In October 2020, AIER hosted a small academic conference on the costs and consequences of lockdowns with three highly qualified medical scientists, Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta, and Jay Bhattacharya. These scientists received no compensation for their participation, which came about due to a mutual recognition that the medical, social, and economic harms of lockdowns were being neglected as countries around the world pursued an aggressive lockdown strategy. At the time the evidence of the efficacy of lockdowns was being debated (https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.22.20160341v3). This novel approach conflicted with existing public health recommendations for respiratory pandemics from as recently as 2019 (https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/..., https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/..., https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/329438/9789241516839-en...).
During the conference, journalists including science writer David Zweig, Forbes’ John Tamny, and Jeanne Lenzer, who reported it for The BMJ (https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m3908), conducted a wide-ranging question and answer session with the scientists, which AIER videotaped for release to the public (https://gbdeclaration.org/video/). At the conclusion of the conference, the scientists drafted the GBD as a general statement of public health principles, calling for an end to lockdowns and outlining an alternative strategy of “focused protection” for vulnerable communities (https://gbdeclaration.org/focused-protection/). While AIER is proud to have hosted the conference that produced this document, its text and principles originated entirely with the scientists - indeed, the idea for a general letter came about spontaneously on the afternoon of October 4 as the conference drew to a close.
Yamey and Gorski’s allegations of fossil fuel and tobacco company interests in AIER are unfounded. These stem from their misunderstanding of AIER’s financial assets as independently managed by our investment subsidiary, American Investment Services. As with any investment fund, these holdings inevitably include stocks from hundreds of companies, none of which have any bearing on our editorial positions. This would be akin to suggesting that Yamey’s own pro-lockdown position is tainted by Duke University’s multi-billion dollar foundation - built from the tobacco fortune of James Buchanan Duke - or that Gorski’s medical work is ethically compromised by the presence of fossil fuel stocks in Wayne State University’s $400 million endowment. To portray either as a source of financial influence appears to display a misunderstanding of the very nature of investments, which are a way of ensuring an institution’s long-term financial stability - not a payoff from the firms whose stocks are owned.
Are financial theories about AIER and the GBD really where these authors want to hang their hats? For the record, AIER publishes its own financial reports every year (https://www.aier.org/financials/). Anyone who wants to see where the money comes from, or where it goes can simply navigate to our website and do so. There are no tricks. There is no deception.
Phillip W. Magness
Senor Research Faculty & Interim Director of Research and Education
American Institute for Economic Research
James R. Harrigan
American Institute for Economic Research
Competing interests: No competing interests