Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Media and Democracy.
Earlier this month, as the Omicron variant began to spread, a small liberal arts school on a tree-lined campus in Michigan called Hillsdale College announced it was launching an Academy for Science and Freedom to “educate the American people about the free exchange of scientific ideas and the proper relationship between freedom and science in the pursuit of truth.”
The academy was inspired by the pandemic. “As we reflect on the worst public health fiasco in history, our pandemic response has unveiled serious issues with how science is administered,” noted the college president in a press release.
But the venture isn't exactly an effort to apply science to the COVID-19 crisis. The so-called “fiasco” was government pandemic measures like mask and vaccine mandates, contact tracing, and lockdowns.
Hillsdale is a conservative Christian institution with ties to the Trump administration. And the scholars behind the academy — Scott Atlas, Jay Bhattacharya, and Martin Kulldorff — are connected to right-wing dark money attacking public health measures.
The trio also has ties to the Great Barrington Declaration, a widely-rebuked yet influential missive that encouraged governments to adopt a “herd immunity” policy letting COVID-19 spread largely unchecked, even as the virus has killed more than 800,000 Americans.
The academy is the newest initiative designed to provide intellectual cover to a nearly two-year campaign by right-wing and big business interests to force a return to normalcy to boost corporate profits amid a pandemic that is now surging once again thanks to Omicron.
That campaign’s most recent success came earlier this month when Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats joined together to pass a symbolic measure to repeal a Biden administration rule requiring large corporations to mandate vaccines or regular COVID tests for workers.
This is the story of how that corporate-bankrolled campaign originally started, and how it has continued to supplant public health experts and hijack the governmental response to the pandemic.
The War On Public Health
When COVID began its spread across the United States in early March 2020, states responded by locking down to varying extents. All 24 Democratic governors and 19 of the 26 Republican governors issued weeks-long stay-at-home orders and restrictions on non-essential businesses.
Lockdown measures drove down cases in the U.S. and likely saved millions of lives globally. But the decline of in-person shopping and work, combined with factory shutdowns in places like China, disrupted the economy. A 2020 report from the corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found the hardest-hit industries would take years to recover.
One sector in particular that took a big hit was the fossil fuel industry. Oil demand fell sharply in 2020, placing the global economy on uncertain footing.
Before long, business-aligned groups — particularly those connected to fossil fuels — began targeting the public health measures threatening their bottom lines. Chief among them were groups tied to billionaire Charles Koch, owner of Koch Industries, the largest privately held fossil fuel company in the world.
The war on public health measures began on March 20, 2020, when Americans For Prosperity (AFP), the right-wing nonprofit founded by Charles and David Koch, issued a press release calling on states to remain open.
“We can achieve public health without depriving the people most in need of the products and services provided by businesses across the country,” it read.
A month later, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business lobbying group partially funded by Koch Industries, published a letter calling on President Donald Trump to enable states to reopen. That letter was signed by over 200 state legislators and “stakeholders,” including leaders from Koch-funded groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the James Madison Institute.
To fight its war, the Koch network also relied on the astroturf roadmap behind the anti-government Tea Party movement, using its dark money apparatus to coordinate anti-lockdown protests.
Participants for a number of anti-lockdown rallies were recruited by FreedomWorks, a dark money group tied to Charles Koch instrumental in organizing Tea Party protests in 2009. Several of the 2020 rallies were also promoted by the Convention of States Action, a group founded by an organization with ties to the Koch network and hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer that wants to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. In Michigan, a major event was organized by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a nonprofit funded by the family of Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.
Groups funded by the Kochs and their colleagues also turned to a more insidious form of combat adapted from Tea Party strategies: building an academic and intellectual network that would create and promote its own “science” to attack COVID mitigation policies.
“Build Up Immunity… Through Natural Infection”
On October 4, 2020, the Great Barrington Declaration was released to the world. Authored by Stanford University professor Jay Bhattacharya, former Harvard Medical School professor Martin Kulldorff, and Oxford University professor Sunetra Gupta, the declaration recommended governments allow younger, healthier people to become infected with COVID-19 while reserving “focused protection” for the vulnerable, in order to reach herd immunity. Suggestions included having nursing homes limit staff rotations and businesses rely on workers with “acquired immunity.”
“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,” read the declaration.
The document boasted a veneer of academic legitimacy. Its credentialed authors wrote the letter at a conference hosted by the auspicious-sounding American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. According to the declaration’s website, the letter has since been signed by more than 2,700 “Medical and Public Health Scientists,” and “none of the authors or co-signers received any money, honoraria, stipend, or salary from anyone.”
But the declaration arose out of the world of right-wing dark money and corporate interests, and many of its signatories aren’t verified.
AIER, which hosted and filmed the conference and registered the declaration’s website, is a Koch-tied libertarian think tank. From 2018 to 2020, the Charles Koch Foundation donated more than $100,000 to the institute. And before that, the Koch Foundation donated nearly $1.5 million to the Emergent Order Foundation, formerly Emergent Order LLC, a PR firm that engaged in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of marketing consulting for AIER.
AIER has also received $54,000 from the Atlas Network, an anti-regulation group formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation that has received more than a half million dollars from the Charles Koch Foundation and the connected Charles Koch Institute. The Atlas Network also pocketed nearly $3.9 million from DonorsTrust, a dark money fund connected to wealthy right-wing donors such as Koch and Mercer, and its sister group, Donors Capital Fund.
In exchange, AIER has provided fellowships to academics in several Koch-funded programs. That includes economist Peter Boettke, the former president of the Mont Pelerin Society, of which Charles Koch has been a member, and Michael Munger, an adjunct scholar at the Koch-backed Cato Institute. AIER’s trustees include Benjamin Powell, director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, which has received millions from the Koch network. Powell is known for his defense of sweatshops.
Bhattacharya, co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, is a former research fellow at the Hoover Institution, which received $430,000 from Charles Koch’s foundation between 2017 and 2018, as well as $1.4 million from the dark money fund DonorsTrust from 2016 to 2020. Since then, Bhattacharya has appeared in multiple Hoover video programs.
Bhattacharya, Gupta, and representatives of AIER did not respond to requests for comment. Kulldorff insisted that he has never received money from the Koch network.
“Koch-affiliated foundations funded pro-lockdown COVID research by Dr. Neil Ferguson at Imperial College, but they have never funded me, either directly or indirectly,” said Kulldorff. “Lockdowns have generated huge profits for Koch and other big businesses while throwing children and the working class under the bus.”
“Access To The Very Highest Levers Of Government”
The Great Barrington Declaration and its natural immunity strategy were widely derided by scientists around the world. The strategy was condemned by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and its HIV Medicine Association while World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it “unethical.” Thousands of medical professionals called on governments to disregard strategies that rely on natural infection.
“Never in the history of public health has anyone suggested infecting the entire population with a pathogen with which we have no long term experience as a strategy for managing a pandemic,” said epidemiologist and physician Robert Morris, who has advised several federal agencies.
Nevertheless, the declaration and its authors were embraced by a number of political leaders, since their arguments provided their laissez-faire approaches to the pandemic with scholarly validity.
This list included President Trump. Two months before the release of the Great Barrington Declaration, Trump welcomed the document’s authors to a White House meeting, even though the administration’s COVID-19 advisor, Deborah Birx, warned colleagues that the doctors were “a fringe group without grounding in epidemics, public health, or on-the-ground common sense experience.”
Trump’s COVID-19 adviser, Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious diseases, appeared to be one of several staff who supported the declaration’s strategy. While Atlas has denied urging the natural immunity approach, he publicly claimed that masks do not help curb the virus and called the idea of mandating vaccines for young people a “denial of science,” a claim that has been thoroughly disproved.
The president became enamored with herd immunity and the quick fix it promised for his reelection campaign. In mid-September 2020, Trump began trotting out the concepts that would soon be codified in the Great Barrington Declaration. He declared at an ABC News town hall, “And you’ll develop…a herd mentality. It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen.”
Following Trump’s lead, a number of Republican-led states adopted hands-off pandemic strategies.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the resumption of most commerce in November 2020, including indoor dining, and barred localities from enforcing mask mandates and social distancing.
Declaration co-author Bhattacharya advised DeSantis on his approach and called the governor “extraordinary” for his handling of the pandemic. Last month, DeSantis signed legislation banning vaccine mandates statewide.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his state’s mask mandate and COVID business restrictions in March 2021. The next month, he declared Texas could be close to herd immunity. Recently, Abbott issued an executive order banning mask mandates, which a federal judge recently ruled unenforceable because it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Great Barrington Declaration’s central arguments also found support overseas. In September 2020, co-author Gupta met in London with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had been slow to impose lockdowns and implement testing after the coronavirus was first identified in his country. A month after this meeting, Johnson sent a series of texts echoing talking points from the declaration, including that the virus wasn’t a real risk to people under 60.
The London meeting was also attended by Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist for Sweden, a country that became well known for its rejection of lockdowns. In April 2020, Sweden’s public health director asserted, “There is no clear correlation between the lockdown measures taken in countries and the effect on the pandemic.”
“You have to hand it to the [authors of the] Great Barrington declaration: They have had extraordinary access to the very highest levers of government,” said Gavin Yamey, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of global health and public policy at Duke University. “They have had a profound impact on policy-making. Time and time again, we’ve seen the [people behind the] Great Barrington Declaration get what they want.”
A Devastating Toll
Despite the Great Barrington Declaration’s claim that it was delineating “the most compassionate approach” to COVID-19, states and countries that embraced its anti-interventionist strategy have all experienced a COVID massacre.
At the time of the declaration’s publication, roughly 200,000 Americans had died from the virus. Since then, that number has quadrupled, the highest known number of any country.
Florida has become a COVID-19 hotspot, accounting for nearly one in five U.S. cases last summer. Virus numbers also surged in Texas, with the two states accounting for one third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths at the time.
Even with all those infections, herd immunity was never achieved. Last week, University of Texas researchers warned that the Omicron variant could lead to the largest surge to date in the state.
International efforts to reach natural herd immunity haven’t fared much better. A scathing report released in October by British lawmakers — many from Prime Minister Johnson’s own party — found that the country’s failure to respond to the virus quickly and aggressively was “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced” and led to “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided.”
And in Sweden, where roughly 11 out every 100 people had been diagnosed with the virus, COVID-19 fatalities stand at 1,476 deaths per million, many times that of its closest neighbors.
“We Are Intent On Not Letting Omicron Disrupt Work & School”
Despite the costs, right-wing messaging against public health measures continues.
At first glance, lockdowns may appear beneficial to some big businesses, especially those that were deemed essential businesses and boasted robust online marketplaces. But social epidemiologist Justin Feldman, of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, noted that “some regulations directly cost businesses money.”
Feldman explained that “paid quarantine and isolation means workers will be paid to stay home instead of working,” vaccine mandates could “make hiring difficult during a labor shortage,” and mask mandates “signal to the public that there is danger and they will then not patronize businesses.”
That’s likely why in March 2021, the dark money fund DonorsTrust spent nearly $800,000 to spread the narrative that the pandemic’s toll was actually due to government interventions. In May, DonorsTrust issued a press release claiming lockdowns hurt workers.
In June, Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank at George Mason University heavily funded by the Koch family, began funding a database run by Emily Oster, an economist who has argued that the drawbacks of school closures outweigh the risks of COVID-19 exposure. Oster’s work was cited by Gov. DeSantis when he signed an order last August allowing parents to defy school mask mandates.
And earlier this month, the Foundation for Economic Education, another Koch-funded nonprofit, claimed that “naive government interventions” were responsible for a rise in global malaria cases and a spike in worldwide poverty.
Such anti-public health intervention narratives have had a lasting impact.
President Joe Biden hasn’t embraced herd immunity through infection the way Trump did, and he instituted a vaccine mandate for large companies that has faced court challenges and pushback from Republican and conservative Democratic lawmakers.
But Biden, whose COVID-19 response team is headed by former investment firm CEO and so-called “businessman’s businessman” Jeffrey Zients, has continued his predecessor’s push to keep the country open, even prematurely declaring “independence” from COVID-19 on Fourth of July last summer.
Earlier this month, Biden assured reporters that lockdowns would not be returning, despite the emergence of the Omicron variant and continued spread of Delta. According to a recent scientific simulation, an eight-week stay-at-home order in response to the new surge could save 300,000 lives.
Last Friday, the White House’s coronavirus response team put out a statement reaffirming its limited approach, a stance Biden reiterated in his remarks on Omicron on Tuesday: “We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work & school for the vaccinated.”
The defeat of lockdowns is only part of big business’ takeover of the country’s COVID-19 response.
The country’s eviction moratorium was allowed to lapse after it faced multiple legal challenges funded in part by the Charles Koch Foundation — at the same time as Charles Koch began making new investments in real estate. A subsequent moratorium put in place by the Biden administration was also struck down by the Supreme Court.
And while one of Biden’s first presidential promises was to clarify COVID-19 workplace safety standards, the resulting guidelines ended up limited to a small subsection of workers, following months of lobbying by business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber and other corporate interests have also pushed for a corporate liability shield to protect employers from COVID-19-related lawsuits and have also been fighting against ongoing efforts to release the vaccine intellectual property at the World Trade Organization to speed up global vaccination.
The right-wing push against public health measures shows signs of success. Support for pandemic lockdown measures dropped significantly over nine months from the start of the pandemic. A Gallup poll from November 2020 found that a plurality of 49 percent of Americans said they would shelter in place in response to a serious outbreak, down from 67 percent in March. The decline was mostly due to a “sharp drop” among Republicans.
“A Shining City On A Hill”
The Great Barrington Declaration’s authors continue to push herd immunity through COVID-19 infections. Gupta co-founded a U.K. nonprofit called Collateral Global dedicated to exposing alleged negative impacts of COVID mitigation measures, which has Bhattacharya on staff.
Bhattacharya, meanwhile, published an op-ed last January claiming that vaccinating people in his native India was “unethical” because most had “natural immunity” and the risk of adverse reactions outweighed the benefits of inoculation. A month later, the country experienced its worst-ever surge.
All three co-authors are also now affiliated with the Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit founded by former AIER editorial director Jeffrey Tucker in May 2021 to prevent “the recurrence of lockdowns.” Bhattacharya serves as the organization's senior scholar, Kulldorff is a senior scientific director, and Gupta is an author.
According to Yamey at Duke University, the institute has been actively promoting vaccine disinformation.
“Time and time again, they have peddled dreadful misinformation and disinformation about vaccines,” he said. “They are, for example, vehemently opposed to vaccinating children, even though we know that unvaccinated children are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized. They very sadly went on television to say that health workers don't need to be vaccinated because they falsely claimed vaccination has no effect on transmission.”
Now declaration co-authors Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, as well as former Trump advisor Scott Atlas have surfaced yet again, as the first three “fellows” at the new Academy for Science and Freedom at Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale, a private non-sectarian Christian school, has long been a factory for conservative thought. In 2016, during a Hillsdale commencement speech, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called it a “shining city on a hill.” Statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher adorn a section of its campus known as “Liberty Walk.” Hillsdale President Larry Arnn chaired Donald Trump’s reactionary 1776 Commission, which sought to craft American history curriculums around America’s strengths.
Hillsdale refuses to accept public funds so it can be free from government mandates. Instead, it accepts large sums from the foundations and donor conduits of right-wing corporate executives and their families. The Charles Koch Foundation has donated over $300,000 to Hillsdale since 2015, and DonorsTrust gave over $3.6 million since 2014, including $2.5 million in 2020. The school has also found generous benefactors in the DeVos family, known for their Amway fortune, and Betsy DeVos’ parents, the Princes.
According to the academy’s recently launched website, the new academy will work “to educate policymakers and the general public about important discoveries and ideas that might otherwise be ignored by scientific journals and corporate media.” To do so, the academy plans to host scientific workshops and conferences, publish academic papers, and engage in “media and government outreach.”
But Feldman isn’t buying it.
“They have no interest in science,” he said. “They have been wrong about the pandemic time and time again. They use their stature as 'experts' to push for policies that are indifferent to ongoing mass death.”
Editor’s Note: This piece has been edited to reflect the correct dates on a poll indicating public opinion on lockdown measures.
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