MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the COVID vaccine and what we now know.
The official U.S. COVID emergency declaration ends today. But the debate over the public health response is far from over.
Throughout the pandemic, doctors and researchers who disagreed with public-health recommendations faced censure—or worse. But three years on, the scope of the debate is broader. Here’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking to John Dickerson on CBS News in March.
ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, the biggest lessons that we've learned is that pandemics occur, they do occur and we've got to be prepared better than we were even though we were judged John to be very well prepared. As I mentioned, we were quite well prepared from a scientific standpoint. We have to do much better from a public health standpoint.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: It doesn’t stop there. Dr. Fauci, the architect of America’s Covid-19 response, recently gave an interview to The New York Times in which he admitted, “We could have done better.”
WORLD senior writer Emma Freire recently spoke to several doctors about what went right, and what went horribly wrong in how America handled Covid-19.
EMMA FREIRE, REPORTER: Jay Bhattacharya was a COVID policy skeptic from the beginning.
JAY BHATTACHARYA: Public health panicked and misread the evidence. And instead of sticking to normal standards for very high-quality evidence for making decisions, they decided that because this was such a crisis, that even low-quality evidence would suffice to make very broad decisions that damaged the, lives and livelihoods of the poor, the vulnerable working class and children.
Bhattacharya and others said so publicly as far back as October 2020.
Bhattacharya is an epidemiologist at Stanford. He joined with epidemiologists from Harvard and Oxford to write an open letter they called the Great Barrington Declaration.
The document argued for what it called focused protection of those most at risk for COVID.
But everyone else should be allowed to go about their lives.
BHATTACHARYA: Our goal was to tell the public that there were actually a lot of scientists who disagreed with the lockdowns, that there was an alternate path available. In fact, there's nothing really new in it. It's basically the old pandemic plan that worked for a century for respiratory virus pandemics.
Today, more of those scientists feel free to voice their disagreement because the harms caused by lockdowns are undeniable.
But back in 2020, freedom to dissent was costly.
Bhattacharya and his co-authors faced censure from leading public-health officials. Their powerful critics included Francis Collins, who was then head of the National Institutes of Health—not to mention Dr. Fauci.
Collins said Bhattacharya and his co-authors were in his words, three fringe epidemiologists.
And it wasn’t just name-calling.
BHATTACHARYA: Tony Fauci and Francis Collins sit on top of almost $45 billion of money that funds the work of every biomedical scientist of note in the United States. You can't get tenure at a top medical school unless you have an NIH grant. So when they say ‘fringe epidemiologists,’ it's an implied threat: If you cross us, it's not just that you won't be able to get funding for your research. It also determines social status within science.
Bhattacharya believes that’s why there appeared to be broad medical consensus about COVID policies. Even though they didn’t speak up, many medical professionals did not, in fact, agree.
And when the vaccine arrived around the end of 2020, Bhattacharya dissented from that public-health consensus too.
BHATTACHARYA: I think the vaccine was an excellent tool for focused protection of older people who were high risk. I think it provided some benefit on net to that group. I have no idea why it was pushed so hard in younger groups and lower-risk groups. It made no sense. It still makes no sense to me.
According to the CDC, eight in 10 eligible Americans got at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Bhattacharya looked at data from the vaccine trials and saw many limitations. But other people drew excessively optimistic conclusions. They believed the vaccine would make the virus go away.
BHATTACHARYA: That was never possible. And certainly based on the randomized trials, you couldn't assume that it was possible.
Despite this, many businesses and the government imposed vaccine mandates. Just before Christmas 2021, President Joe Biden issued a stern warning to anyone who hadn’t gotten the shot.
BIDEN: We are looking at a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated—for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.
Vaccine mandates are over now but some of the people who lost their jobs suffered serious financial harm. So did some who got the vaccine and ended up with injuries or adverse reactions.
GREGORY POLAND: After my second dose of the mRNA vaccine, I developed tinnitus, which is a persistent ringing in the ears, and I decided to go ahead and get my third dose and it got dramatically worse.
That’s Gregory Poland. He’s a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He’s also the founder and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group, and the editor-in-chief of the journal Vaccine.
POLAND: There is not a vaccine I know of that doesn't cause side effects or injury in somebody, mRNA vaccines included.
Despite his tinnitus, Poland still strongly believes the Covid-19 vaccines’ benefits outweigh the risks.
POLAND: To date, all of the injuries that we believe are caused by the vaccine, by mRNA vaccines, pale in comparison to the extent of those same injuries due to the disease itself.
But many Americans disagreed. Vaccination rates have dropped dramatically over time. According to the CDC, only less than one-in-five of the eligible population has gotten the latest boosters.
In his role as a White House vaccine adviser, Poland fields questions about the best way to communicate with the public.
He always repeats the same advice: radical, transparent honesty, as he says.
But that’s not what America got during the pandemic.
POLAND: We had people sworn to protect the public health who politicalized this and said something publicly different than what they did privately. And it cost people’s lives.
And to count up all those costs, Poland believes the country now deserves what he’s calling a COVID truth commission to reckon with everything that went wrong.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Emma Freire.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.
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