An Open Letter to Tyler Cowen on The Great Barrington Declaration

(Don Boudreaux)


When I caught notice of your most-recent effort to explain your disparagement of the Great Barrington Declaration I was prepared to find myself in respectful disagreement with the substance of at least some of your objections. But what I found instead is a surprising and disappointing absence of any substantive criticism of the GBD.

Authored by Drs. Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff, the Great Barrington Declaration text is 509 words. So that everyone can see this document plainly, I paste it here in full:

The Great Barrington Declaration

As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.

Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.

Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.

Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing. We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.

As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e.  the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd 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, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19. By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent testing of other staff and all visitors. Staff rotation should be minimized. Retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside. A comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals.

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

The GBD is an expression of judgment against heavy-handed widescale coercions and other closures (lockdowns), and in favor of what the authors call “Focused Protection.”

Yet every argument that you offer against the GBD is ad hominem. Nowhere do you tell us what it is that you find objectionable about the substance of the Declaration.

You tell us your reasons for disliking AIER (the GBD’s sponsor). But no employee, columnist, intern, or Fellow of AIER wrote the GBD. Not Jeffrey Tucker. Not Ed Stringham. Not Naomi Wolf (who, I’m pretty sure, in October, when the document was written and published, had no affiliation with AIER).

And then you share several statements and predictions from the GBD’s co-authors. You regard these statements as questionable and these predictions as mistaken. Your goal in listing these statements and predictions is to discredit the GBD by associating it with scientists whose professional merit, you suggest, is sufficiently questionable that we should look with great skepticism upon what they wrote in the GBD. But none of these statements and predictions that you quote appear in that document. If the GBD is as bad as you believe it to be, surely it contains at least one statement toward which substantive criticism can be aimed.

I don’t doubt that each of the GBD’s distinguished co-authors have, during their careers, made statements that they later wish they could retract, and offered predictions that did not pan out. Can you name any scientist worth his or her salt whose track record is perfect?

Even excellent scientists get things wrong from time to time. But throughout all follow the scientific method. This method rejects ad hominem argumentation. Your disparagement of the GBD is thus ironic. By relying exclusively on ad hominem argumentation to cast doubt on the scientific merits of the GBD you act unscientifically – an action worse than any of the errors that you allege to uncover in your list of non-GBD statements and predictions made by the document’s authors.

In one of the few places in your post in which you mention substance bearing some relation to the GBD, you write:

here is co-author Sunetra Gupta:

“What we’ve seen is that in normal, healthy people, who are not elderly or frail or don’t have comorbidities, this virus is not something to worry about no more than how we worry about flu,” professor Gupta told HT.

Nope, almost 600,000 U.S. deaths later.

I’m genuinely baffled. What is objectionable about this statement by Prof. Gupta? It strikes me as being quite accurate. Yet you dismiss it by declaring, “Nope, almost 600,000 U.S. deaths later.” (Not that it matters much, but the latest CDC data, as of April 7th, report the number of U.S. deaths – “All Deaths involving  COVID-19” – as being 539,793.) I’m aware that, at least for policy purposes, you believe Covid’s steep age-gradient to be irrelevant, but this steep age-gradient is central to Prof. Gupta’s claim.

As a reminder, 31 percent of Covid deaths in the U.S. are of people 85 and older; 58 percent are of people 75 and older; and 80 percent are of people 65 and older. And almost all persons who have died of Covid have had comorbidities. This reality – shown in CDC data – not only seems quite strongly to confirm Prof. Gupta’s statement, it also speaks to the good sense of the GBD’s recommendation of Focused Protection.

Let’s not forget that the great majority of Covid deaths occurred in policy regimes that reject the GBD’s advice to focus resources and attention on protecting the vulnerable. These deaths occurred in policy regimes that instead followed, to one degree or another, the lockdown recommendations of Neil Ferguson and the Imperial College. All resources being scarce, those resources that are devoted to protecting the non-vulnerable are not available for protecting the vulnerable. And so we have an empirical question: How many of these Covid deaths would have been avoided had, contrary to fact, the GBD’s recommendations been followed and the Imperial College’s recommendations been rejected?

I close by returning to my root disappointment. While seeming to promise in your recent post an explanation of what you believe to be substantively mistaken in the Great Barrington Declaration, you offer little beyond ad hominem. You’re better than that, Tyler.


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