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Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: The Deadly Consequences of Censorship and the Need for COVID Commissions

Updated: Mar 10

I sit down with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of health policy at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and one of the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration that argued for focused protection of the vulnerable—instead of large-scale lockdowns.

“Many people that are dead today would be alive, had we been allowed to make that argument,” Bhattacharya says.

We discuss how Big Tech, his university, and the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy worked to silence him and other scientists.

Last December, he was invited by Elon Musk to visit Twitter headquarters and see how he was censored. “I was actually placed on the blacklist the very day I joined Twitter,” he says.

After years of destructive pandemic policies, what is the path forward? How do we prevent the same policies from being adopted the next time there’s a respiratory virus pandemic?


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek:

Jay Bhattacharya, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya:

Thank you, Jan. It’s so good to be with you.

Mr. Jekielek:

Jay, it’s been a while since we’ve spoken on camera. And since then, all sorts of evidence has come to light about work you did around the Great Barrington Declaration trying to talk about focused protection and gradients and harms across age. There were all sorts of elements of society, Big Tech, government, your own institution, Stanford, all working to suppress some incredibly important information.

And of course, there is the Missouri versus Biden piece which revealed all the information. What’s your reaction at this point having seen all of this?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

It just makes me incredibly sad, Jan, because it’s one thing for me to be censored. If it was just a story about me, that would be one thing. The problem is that me and many of my colleagues were trying to make an argument that the public health response we were following was incredibly misguided. It was going to lead to the harm of countless children and the starvation of millions of people around the world because of the economic harm from the lockdowns.

We were arguing that the diversion of attention from other vital medical priorities was quite shortsighted, and that there was an alternate strategy, focused protection, that could also have better protected older people from the disease. If we had been allowed to make that argument clearly, if we had not been suppressed by the government, by the university that I work at, or news organizations that basically put out propaganda, we would have won that argument, Jan. We had better science. We had the better argument regarding the balance of harms.

We had the better understanding of who was actually at risk of COVID. We would have won that argument and the world would have been better off. Many people that are dead would be alive today had we been allowed to make that argument. That’s why to me, it’s so important to tell this story about the suppression of science by the government, and the failure of academic institutions like my home university, Stanford, to stand up for academic freedom when it counted most.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s start with Stanford. You have been tenured at Stanford for 15 years. You’re one of the premier epidemiologists in the world, and many people would agree with me. So, what happened at Stanford?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Almost from the beginning of COVID, I faced tremendous backlash within my own home institution for speaking up. I wrote an op-ed in March of 2020 in the Wall Street Journal, the first op-ed I had ever written in my life. It said that we don’t yet know how deadly COVID is. I just went through some evidence from the Diamond Princess data and said, “Look, the disease might be much more widespread than we initially believed.”

And it called for a study. The conclusion of the piece was. “Let’s do a study.” We had already locked down the world. It wasn’t like we could go back in time. It just said, “What is the empirical basis for the policies that we are following? We don’t even yet know how deadly the disease is.”

That almost immediately led to my getting death threats. I started getting messages from friends. One of them eventually de-friended me on Facebook. It was petty little things. But the thing that was funny on campus was that it didn’t lead to a broader discussion. Even though I had been at Stanford for 36 years, 20 as a professor, and 15 tenured, I felt like I was on the outside immediately. I had done something where I had breached some norm.

Mr. Jekielek:

The term canceled comes to mind, although not to the fullest.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes. What happened was that I wrote the Great Barrington Declaration. I work in a medical school. I do health policy and infectious disease epidemiology for a living. We just put forward in the Great Barrington Declaration, in October 2020, a major proposal for an alternate strategy to the central policy problem facing the entire world.

It generated an incredible amount of attention, both positive and negative, and it certainly needed to be platformed at Stanford. What I mean by platformed is that one of the main things about the life of a university is that professors give talks about their ideas. It sounds so mundane and boring and most professors are saying. “Who cares about most of my talks?”

But that is actually quite important, Jan. It tells the world, “Look, these ideas are things that are worth discussing, that are worth paying attention to, that are worth respecting even if you disagree with them, even if they turn out to be wrong.” Normally, what would have happened when a professor at a major university makes a major proposal like that is that there would have been invitations within the home institution of the university for debate and discussion.

Instead, what happened was essentially omerta, silence. Nothing. Again, I was still getting death threats from various random sources. On campus, I started hearing the mutterings of people wanting to figure out how to deal with the Jay problem. The summer before, in 2020, there had already been an attack on my colleague, Scott Atlas, who was an advisor to President Trump. A hundred of my colleagues had signed a letter, which I believe was a deeply irresponsible thing to do, attacking him for things he didn’t do.

The letter actually said that hand-washing was important, somehow implying that he didn’t believe in hand-washing. Scott was trying to argue for focused protection of vulnerable people. He was trying to argue for opening schools. He was following the scientific evidence that actually supported all this, and that’s what he was advising President Trump. These one hundred people that signed the letter didn’t understand the evidence as well as Scott did. These were colleagues of mine, people I’ve written papers with, and people I respected.

I called one of them and asked him why he signed the letter. He said he hadn’t taken a very close look at it. There was tremendous social pressure to sign, and even junior people who didn’t have tenure were scared that if they didn’t sign, what would happen to their tenure? That was the atmosphere at Stanford when the Great Barrington Declaration came out. I couldn’t get any traction on trying to get my views aired on campus.

At one point, the former president of the university, John Hennessy, called me and asked me if I’d be willing to do a debate. This was in December of 2020. I was absolutely thrilled. I thought, “Okay, finally we have someone who’s well respected in the Stanford community trying to organize something. I don’t even know if he agreed with the Great Barrington Declaration. It didn’t matter, right? What mattered was that there was going to be some discussion.

He couldn’t get anybody on the other side to sign on. In my home department, the department chair essentially sent the proposal for a debate or a discussion off to a committee that he must have known was going to fail. There was no platforming. There was no time when Stanford said, “Okay, we’re going to host a discussion about this.”

I just want to emphasize why that was important. It’s not because of me personally, although personally I did feel hurt. It was important, because if Stanford had done that, it would have been a major institution telling the world, “Look, this is a debate that’s worth having.”

We were already having legitimate people with legitimate credentials that didn’t agree with the lockdown consensus. There wasn’t a consensus, Jan. There was never a consensus. That was an illusion created by Tony Fauci and a small number of incredibly powerful people.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s go to the second bit of evidence. Let’s try to tie this all together. What came out in some of the discovery in Missouri versus Biden was an email thread that talked about the devastating takedown of some fringe epidemiologists. What was your reaction when you learned of this?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Four days after we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, and I learned this months and months later, Francis Collins, the head of the National Institute of Health, wrote an email to Tony Fauci calling me, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff, the three primary authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, fringe epidemiologists. I actually just laughed when I heard this because it’s just funny.

Mr. Jekielek:

I’ll jump in. Martin Kulldorff and Sunetra Gupta, how would you rank their international stature in epidemiology? You don’t have to talk about yourself.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I’m not fit to be in their company. Martin Kulldorff is probably the best biostatistician working in vaccine safety today. He designed the statistical infrastructure that the FDA and the CDC uses to track vaccine safety. I had used his methods before the pandemic, even before I met him or knew about him.

Sunetra Gupta, she is essentially the professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, an incredibly brilliant mathematician and epidemiologist. Just before the pandemic, she was working on developing a universal flu vaccine, a vaccine that you don’t have to update every year. She is an incredibly impactful scholar who’s had a career at the center of epidemiology.

Mr. Jekielek:

I just want to establish the fact that none of you are actually fringe.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I have a business card somewhere that says fringe epidemiology. A friend of mine sent it to me afterwards. Okay, you’re serious, because you’re asking me this question seriously. It was a deeply irresponsible thing for Francis Collins to do. It was an abuse of his power. He’s the head of the National Institute of Health. He sits on top of $45 billion of federal funding.

For instance, Stanford gets a half a billion dollars a year from the NIH. Not only does he control the money, he also controls the social status of scientists. If you don’t get NIH grants as a biomedical researcher, it puts you down the social hierarchy within the social structure of academic medicine. I would not have gotten tenure at Stanford if I had not won NIH grants.

To say that these three people are fringe, why would he do that? It’s because he didn’t want to cope with our ideas. He didn’t actually want to address the substance of our ideas. He just wanted to dismiss us, and socially, make us outsiders. He wanted to excommunicate us from the scientific community.

What is the message that top universities get when they hear this? They don’t want their social status and their brand hurt by association with fringe epidemiologists or fringe figures. They don’t want the possibility that maybe the funding sources that the NIH provides will get threatened, or that the social status conferred by the NIH to these institutions will get threatened. They brag about how much NIH funding they get.

So, you have a federal government figure abusing his power. Why? Because he couldn’t stand the idea that there were prominent scientists that disagreed with him about pandemic policy. That’s why he called for a devastating takedown of our premises. Initially, the best they could do was tendentious articles in Wired magazine. The substantive counterattack didn’t exist.

When there finally was a substantial counterattack to the Great Barrington Declaration, it came in the form of pieces in prominent scientific journals, but with ridiculous scientific arguments like, “We don’t know if there’s any immunity after infection.” There was a memorandum called the John Snow Memorandum signed by very prominent people, including the current CDC director, who signed her name in November of 2020.

Mr. Jekielek:

Just very briefly, why is that? Why was the John Snow Memorandum problematic?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

It misread the science. For instance, it said that you can’t know for certain that there is immunity after protecting it. It acknowledged that there were some lockdown harms, but downplayed them. It pretended as if they were inevitable, as if the lockdowns were the only inevitable choice to make. All of the harms that came from them were just downstream from this inevitable decision, as opposed to a thing that we decided to do.

It dismissed the possibility of focused protection, essentially sending a signal to the public health community, “Don’t even try. The lockdowns will protect old people. That should be enough.” But the result of that was essentially a corruption of the scientific process, a corruption of major institutions, governments, universities, and top scientific journals in service of a policy that almost everyone now agrees was entirely ineffective.

Even by the standards of COVID deaths alone, how many millions have died? Did the policy work? It essentially ignored the possibility there could have been alternate policy, which there was.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s jump to something a little more recent that you have realized from one of the earliest drops of the Twitter files, that you had been identified as someone to be shadow-banned, and that there was this public-private collaboration to make that happen. What was your reaction?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

I joined Twitter in August of 2021. I only joined for one purpose and I figured I needed to make a very public case for the ideas in the Great Barrington Declaration for sane public health. Just writing scientific papers alone wasn’t moving people within the scientific community. It was also clear to me that it was the public that had been most harmed by these lockdown policies—our kids out of school, poor people decimated by COVID, and the difficulty of working class people to make a living and feed their family.

I wanted to tell the public that there was this alternate policy. The purpose of joining Twitter was to reach people that hadn’t heard my message, and perhaps disagreed with me. I could put the evidence that I had in front of them, and put the arguments they had in front of them.

With Twitter, you have your followers, you can send your message, and generally the followers will see it. Not always, but generally. Sometimes though, the posts go viral. They trend in the language of Twitter, so that the broader Twitter community, the millions and millions of people that read Twitter also see those messages from time to time. Not every message, but from time to time.

When Bari Weiss wrote that piece about the Twitter files and she put me at the top of it, she revealed that I had been placed on a trends blacklist. I love that term, Jan. It reminds me of the McCarthy era back in the 1950s. Actually, that’s what this era feels like. It’s like a strange suppression of dissidents by the government that is so sure that it’s right, that it feels okay to do this. The trends blacklist made sure that whenever I did a Tweet, the broader Twitter audience wouldn’t see it.

I felt like I was reaching an audience, because I had 100,000 followers, but I didn’t know that I had no chance of actually accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish by going on Twitter, which is to tell the broader public that there was something deeply wrong with the COVID policy.

I got invited to visit with Elon Musk as a result of these revelations in the Twitter files. What I found out during my visit there at Twitter headquarters is that I was actually placed on the blacklist the very day I joined Twitter. Why did that happen? It’s not Twitter 1.0 on its own that decided this.

That came about because government actors were involved at the highest levels of federal bureaucracy telling social media companies what ideas to censor and who to censor. Maybe the first or second post I did on Twitter was the Great Barrington Declaration. It is still my pinned tweet. You can go see it. And that is what led to the blacklisting.

Mr. Jekielek:

What do you make of this type of collaboration between the highest levels of government and Big Tech? Because we’ve seen from Missouri versus Biden that it wasn’t just Twitter doing this type of activity.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

There needs to be a bright wall of separation because there’s a power imbalance. You can read the emails from Missouri versus Biden; the deposition testimony, the FOIAs, and all the discovery emails, and it looks like there’s this collaborative buddy-buddy relationship. The government says, “These are the people to censor and these are ideas to censor.” And Twitter says, or the social media companies say, “Oh great, we want to help you do this.” It looks like a collaborative relationship, but at its heart, it cannot possibly be a collaborative relationship, because the government telling these companies to do this has an implied threat within it.

The government regulates these companies. The government has tremendous powers to make these companies succeed or fail. And so, when it gives these kinds of instructions, the implied threat is that we can destroy your company.

Normally, the U.S. Constitution would protect against these kinds of things. It was built into the very fabric of our government agencies that this would be something so far out of bounds they wouldn’t do it. It’s one thing if you have the government say, “This guy is an international criminal terrorist.” You can understand how there may need to be some kind of line of communication around that.

But the line between that and suppressing scientific discussion, suppressing policy discussion should have been a bright red line that never should have been crossed. The government agencies essentially decided to treat scientific debate on COVID policy as if we were dissidents who were on the other side of the government, as if they were just like those international terrorists in some sense. They thought it was okay to suppress those kinds of people and those kinds of ideas.

As an American citizen, it’s not right for the American government to have that kind of power. The basic fundamental American norm is free speech. I understand there are nuances around exactly what that means. Free speech is not the freedom to reach everybody, but at its very heart it is permitting a space for debate to take place among scientists and policy makers and concerned members of the public on vital policy issues.

The government decided through its actions that they didn’t want to let that happen during the pandemic. Again, as a result, it’s really not about me, it’s about the fact that we would have won this debate about lockdown policy. So many people that were harmed would not have been harmed. These vaccine mandates would not have been in place.

People wouldn’t have lost their jobs or careers over them. The schools would’ve opened earlier. The panic mongering would’ve been addressed, so the anxiety and depression problems that we are seeing might have been less. The economic devastation from the lockdown policies might have been avoided, at least to some degree.

From all of these consequences, the conclusion I take away from that is that this censorship activity killed people. Ironically, during the pandemic, we heard all these things like we can’t have free speech during the pandemic. The constitution is not a suicide pact. Ironically, had the First Amendment actually been in place during the pandemic, it would have saved lives, would have led to less damage and destruction with fewer people dead.

Mr. Jekielek:

From the numbers I’ve seen, I think by considerable margin?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

Yes, there’s no question, just take the damage to poor people around the world. There was an estimate that the World Bank put out that a hundred million additional people, as a consequence of the economic dislocation caused by just the early lockdowns, were thrown into dire poverty, living on less than $2 a day of income. And many of those people starved.

Many of them didn’t send their kids to school. Actually in poor countries, they put their kids to work, and pulled their kids out of school entirely. Uganda is a good example of this. Four-and-a-half million kids never came back to school after two years of school closures. A lot of them, especially the young girls, were sold into sexual slavery because the families couldn’t feed them. When you take an action as dramatic as a lockdown, you set in motion a whole domino set of effects.

You talked about supply chains. The end point of a supply chain is some poor person in some poor country that’s reorganized its economy to fit into the global economy. He loses his job, can’t feed his family, and then he has to make a terrible choice between starving, or exploiting his kids so that they don’t starve.

These are the kinds of things that policymakers really need to be thinking about when they make these decisions. We didn’t think about them. They didn’t think about them because the people that would’ve brought them up were being suppressed.

Mr. Jekielek:

You wrote this piece in Tablet about what happened at Stanford. You mentioned suicidal ideation. You mentioned people not getting their medical checkups. Ostensibly, the lockdowns were to prevent hospital overrun, but the hospitals were actually empty. Not all of them, but more so than normal. It was a cataclysmic social intervention that, as you say, had these very, very far-reaching effects.

Dr. Bhattacharya:

We’re going to be paying for them for a very long time. Some kids were out of school for a short time, let’s just say in the United States. Some kids were out of school for not just a short time, but a very long time. There’s social science literature that precedes the pandemic that found even short interruptions to kids schooling has long-term consequences for the kids.

They end up being poorer as adults, more likely to have chronic illness, and they live shorter lives. It’s not equally distributed. It’s the poor kids that suffer the most from this, because there’s no making it up, or less of making it up. It’s a generational driver of inequality that we created during the pandemic.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re involved in a number of efforts to try to rectify some of these things. We started with these lockdowns, then it went to various types of mandates. Now, there’s a whole discussion of were these vaccines rolled out too quickly? What exactly happened? What are the incentive structures with big pharma?

You’re involved in numerous groups that are trying to wrestle with this. One example that we’ve covered recently is the Norfolk Group that has a whole series of recommendations on what questions to ask to figure out what really happened. That’s how I read it. Just briefly tell me about that and what should we do now with this reality?

Dr. Bhattacharya:

There have been a number of attempts to try to do an after-action report about the pandemic. The Democratic House, for instance, conducted one. There have been a couple of other COVID commissions, the idea of which is a good one in the sense that after natural disasters, after plane crashes, after terrible things, after a patient dies in a hospital, you come together with the experts that are involved, sometimes outside experts, and you do an honest assessment of what went wrong with the goal of reforming the process so that it doesn’t happen again.

The problem is that these after-action reports have been conducted by people who made the decisions in favor of the lockdowns. As a result, they have not asked the critical questions that need to be asked to really do an honest after-action report. For instance, why was the immunity after COVID infection ignored in basic decision-making? The science was really clear in 2020.

What were the forecasting models that were used to justify lockdown? There was a lot of evidence that those models were deeply inaccurate even at the time. Why was that evidence ignored? Why were the schools closed for such a long time when the evidence from around the world, especially in Europe, was showing that wasn’t necessary?