Today
Wed 29 September 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reveals the links between an open letter claiming COVID-19 is a mild disease to pandemic misinformation networks and anti-vaccine propaganda

An open letter demanding the UK Government end all COVID-19 related restrictions in June due to the success of vaccinations is signed by scientists affiliated with international networks that appear to spread pandemic disinformation, including groups such as the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) and outfits that have promoted anti-vaccine sentiments such as PANDA and HART. 

Two of the signatories are UK Government advisors, and ten are GBD signatories.

The letter signed by 22 scientists was widely promoted by Britain’s right-wing press, including The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, Daily Express, and The Spectator, before being picked up by broadcasters like LBC and newspapers like The Metro. Yet half of its signatories are affiliated with pandemic disinformation groups.

The Great Barrington Declaration, and this obsession with naturally-acquired herd immunity by simply letting the virus spread through the population, has undoubtedly cost lives

Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton

The open letter argues that the success of vaccines in the UK have turned COVID-19 into a “mild disease” like influenza, justifying the permanent elimination of all restrictions including masks.

It also dismisses the risk from new variants. But media organisations promoting the letter have failed to report that at least 11 of its signatories appear to be closely linked to anti-vaccine organisations and well-known COVID-19 misinformation networks. 


The Koch Network

One key signatory is Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, who is a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) whose proposed strategy of letting the virus run has been widely criticised by over 7,000 public health scientists.

As Byline Times has previously revealed, the GBD was sponsored by a right-wing libertarian think tank plugged into the Koch-backed climate science denial network, with a history of spreading misinformation on behalf of private health and tobacco lobbies. Most of the GBD’s supposed medical scientific signatories are unverified and unvetted. 


The South Africa Network

Gupta is also on the scientific advisory board of PANDA (Pandemics Data and Analytics), a South Africa-based pandemic disinformation outlet that has promoted anti-vaccine pseudoscience.

In April, the scientific advisory board was removed from PANDA’s website after several members resigned over its apparent stance over vaccinations. Last year, for instance, PANDA published a report by physicist and climate science denier Dr Denis Rancourt, who was banned from the University of Ottawa after years of controversy.

The report, the subheading of which summarises its major findings as ‘Measures do not prevent deaths, transmission is not by contact, masks provide no benefit, vaccines are inherently dangerous’ – contains an entire section titled “Vaccines are inherently dangerous”.

In January, PANDA reiterated anti-vax claims with the assertion that: “Currently, there is no one for whom the benefit would outweigh the risk of these vaccines – even the most vulnerable elderly nursing home patients.” 

Among other things, PANDA had repeatedly claimed in the first half of 2020 that only 10,000 people would die from COVID-19 in South Africa. The real figure appears to be well over 120,000. 


Great Barrington Declaration

Another key signatory to the new open letter is Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, who sits alongside three GBD signatories, Sunetra Gupta, Professor Martin Kulldorf and Stanford University’s Professor Jay Bhattacharya, on the scientific advisory board of Collateral Global – an anti-lockdown venture set-up by Gupta’s partner Alexander Caccia. Like Gupta, Kulldorf and Bhattacharya are also scientific advisors to PANDA.

Heneghan recently authored a paper denying evidence of COVID-19 airborne transmission which, however, was rejected by peer-reviewer Dr David R Tomlinson for excluding “a large body of data which has been the foundation of investigations towards establishing routes of transmission of respiratory viruses amongst humans. Indeed, if your present methods were applied to measles, one would have to conclude that measles is not transmitted via the airborne route since live virus has never been successfully cultured from air samples.”


The Robert F. Kennedy Connection

Heneghan is now also on the advisory board of the Institute for Scientific Freedom founded by Peter Gotzsche, who is a supporter of prominent anti-vaccine icon Robert F. Kennedy Jnr.

Kennedy is part of the ‘Disinformation Dozen’, a network of influencers generating two-thirds of anti-vaccination disinformation on Facebook and Twitter. He has recently used historic medical failures toward Black communities to attack COVID-19 vaccines. Gotzsche was previously sacked from the governing body of international medical reviews charity Cochrane, then later from his role as head of a Danish hospital, the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen. 

Although Gotzsche publicly supports COVID-19 vaccines and has denied being an ‘anti-vaxxer’, in February 2019 Gotzsche was scheduled to appear at a hardcore anti-vaccination conference featuring anti-vaxxers like Kennedy and Toni Bark. He pulled out after a public backlash about his participation in the event, reiterating his support for most vaccines. 

But by September 2020, Gotzsche became a paid expert witness for Robert Kennedy’s anti-vax lawsuit against the University of California. His declaration in support of Kennedy’s suit claimed that the flu vaccine could “cause serious harm” and “more harm than good.” 

Gotzsche has also previously led efforts to cast doubt on the HPV vaccine with false claims that were later exposed in NPJ Vaccines. Those claims had been published in BMJ’s Evidence-Based Medicine under Carl Heneghan’s editorship.

According to research scientist Magdalen Wind-Mozley of the Oxford Vaccine Group’s Patient and Public Involvement Group at Oxford University: “Heneghan has a history of working with, and facilitating the work of, researchers who promote anti-vaccine sentiment. Heneghan has also consistently undermined the pandemic response with his misuse of data. “


The HART Connection

Several other signatories are affiliated to networks which appear to promote disinformation around the pandemic. As Byline Times has previously revealed, Professor Ellen Townsend, Professor David Livermore and Dr John Lee are all members of the Health Advisory & Recovery Team (HART) group. 

HART was co-founded by Graham Hutchinson, who has coordinated the group prior to and since its inception. He was listed as a member of the group until mid-February. Hutchinson is an active proponent of COVID-19 pseudoscience including claiming that “vaccination is pointless” and “used for massive-scale depopulation”; that the COVID-19 pandemic is an artefact of PCR testing; and that the pandemic was engineered to “get rid of Trump”, whom he praised for being “against climate” and “chasing paediphile [sic] rings”. 

Dr Tanya Kymenko, HART spokesperson, has declared that she would not allow her 18-year-old son to get vaccinated. In January, HART member Dr John Lee claimed that the number of deaths in England and Wales at the time was “below the average point of deaths at this time of year”. In reality, they were 16% above the 27-year average and 20% above the five-year average.


From GBD to HART to PCRclaims to UsforThem

Both David Livermore and Ellen Townsend are GBD signatories, along with other endorsers of the new open letter: Professor Mike Hulme, Professor Karol Sikora (who has a reported history of lobbying against the NHS on behalf of Conservative and Republican party pressure groups), Professor Anthony Brookes, Professor Angus Dalgleish, and Professor Lisa White. In total, nine of the signatories of the open letter are also GBD signatories.

Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton told Byline Times:

“The Great Barrington Declaration, and this obsession with naturally-acquired herd immunity by simply letting the virus spread through the population, has undoubtedly cost lives. Heneghan and Gupta even managed to get an audience with the Prime Minister to promote these theories as policy measures. Given Johnson’s alleged comments around ‘letting the bodies pile high’ rather than implement another lockdown, it looks like these discussions may have been well received in Downing Street. And now, here we are at over 150,000 UK deaths from COVID-19, along with well over 1 million suffering from long COVID. The mendacious approaches to public health from some of these academics is horrendous.”

Two of the open letter signatories are UK Government advisors. Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist, sits on the Government’s NERVTAG group. Professor David Livermore sits on the Government’s Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infections Advisory Committee.

Ellen Townsend, who since Byline Times’ reporting is no longer listed on the HART website, was also previously identified as a ‘public health spokesperson’ for the disinformation website PCRclaims.co.uk which has promoted numerous false claims, including that the pandemic is an artefact of PCR tests generating false positives. 

Another HART member, retired paediatrician Dr Ros Jones, is a member of the leadership team at the parents’ lobby group UsforThem. Several of her fellow coordinators at UsforThem have appeared on platforms promoting COVID-19 misinformation. In May 2020, for instance, UsforThem coordinator Christine Brett appeared on a YouTube show hosted by the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) to oppose social distancing in schools. Among other things, the ANH is a vigorous promoter of anti-vaxxer misinformation. 

Brett has also written for The Conservative Woman, another right-wing platform with a history of climate science denialism. It now regularly publishes COVID-19 pseudoscience such as an article claiming that PCR tests produce an “epidemic just in false positive cases”. To impugn PCR tests, the article referred to a critical review of a major study on the tests involving semi-retired ex-Pfizer scientist Dr Michael Yeadon, who is now an “anti-vax hero” promoting COVID-19 misinformation according to Reuters. Yeadon is also an advisor to PANDA along with a signatory to the current letter Sunetra Gupta.


Russia-backed Disinformation

Another notable disinformation figure on the open letter’s signatories is Professor Paul McKeigue, a statistical geneticist at the University of Edinburgh. McKeigue is a GBD signatory, but also a member of the ‘Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media’, a group of British academics who have promoted conspiratorial disinformation on the role of chemical weapons in the Syria conflict. This author had previously exposed McKeigue’s spurious statistical sleights of hand about the conflict in a report for Queen Mary University’s International State Crime Initiative. More recently, McKeigue has been exposed for his role in a wider disinformation nexus on Syria linked to Russian diplomats. 

In the UK, around 50 per cent of the population have not yet been vaccinated, and only around 19 per cent of adults are fully immunised as many have not yet received their second dose. 

This calls for a cautious approach to reopening, according to Dr. Michael Head: “The UK is finally adopting a cautious approach to lifting lockdown measures. This is the right thing to do. We only need to go back to January to see our ICUs running at over 100% capacity and over 1,000 COVID-19 deaths each and every day. India is also another cautionary tale about declaring the country is in ‘the pandemic end game’ and opening up society too soon,” he told Byline Times 

The signatories to the open letter have been described by Britain’s right-wing press as a group of “leading scientists” and “experts”. Yet at least half of them appear have been actively involved with pandemic disinformation networks, including groups promoting anti-vaccination sentiment.

“Conspiracy theorists don’t seem to be fussy about which piece of misinformation they attach themselves to,” Magdalen Wind-Mozley told Byline Times. “Therefore, it’s no real surprise that many of those who have spent the last year undermining lockdowns and use of facemasks are also repeating anti-vaccine sentiment. They don’t obviously seem to mind which public health measures they oppose.”

Some of the signatories to the new open letter, such as Gupta and Heneghan, have repeatedly made inaccurate predictions about the imminent end of the pandemic which have turned out to be false.

Despite that, this new open letter has been uncritically amplified by much of the British media, which once again has demonstrated an alarming inability to distinguish facts from misinformation and speculation,

Carl Heneghan and Sunetra Gupta did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.

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